Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On President’s Trump Declaration of a National Emergency

When President Trump declared a national emergency two weeks ago in order to build his pet project – and in the process declared his intent to siphon billions of dollars that Congress had appropriated for our men and women in uniform– I am not sure which lawyers he consulted, but those lawyers seemed to overlook our nation’s founding document, the United States Constitution.

I know the President likes to communicate in 280 characters or less, so I’ll point him to a 77 character phrase he may want to review: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.

In that short sentence, enshrined in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, our Founders established that Congress – and Congress alone – possesses the power of the purse.  Congress’ exclusive power over our government’s spending priorities is one of the most critical checks and balances in our constitutional system.  The President can propose funding for whatever projects he wants, but it is the job of Congress to decide where to invest the American people’s hard-earned tax dollars.  

For over two years the President has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to convince Congress that building his southern border wall is a good idea. He failed to get a deal with Mexico, despite promising his supporters more than 200 times that Mexico would pay for it.  He failed to get a deal with his own party, even during the two years when Republicans controlled the White House, the House and the Senate.  And he failed to get a deal after he forced the country into a 35 day government shutdown over the issue.  

In the face of his failings, he has decided to go it alone, stretching his powers under the National Emergency Act beyond all recognition.  There is no rational basis to justify the use of this authority.  And that’s because, according to a bipartisan group of 58 former senior national security officials, “there is no factual basis for the declaration of a national emergency” on the Southwest border.  I ask unanimous consent that the Joint Declaration by former senior national security officials be made part of the record. 

The reality is that apprehensions at the Southwest border have dropped 75 percent since 2000.  The reality is that many southern border communities have violent crime rates that are lower than the national average.  The reality is that the vast majority of drugs apprehended at the border are seized at ports of entry, and a wall would do nothing to stop this.  The President is either out of touch with reality or willfully ignoring it. 

Presidential emergency powers should only be invoked in true times of crisis.  It is an abuse of power to invoke these authorities simply to energize his base, or to fulfill a cynical campaign promise he never should have made.  When Congress enacted the National Emergency Act in 1976, conveying these powers to the President, it assumed whoever sat in the Oval Office would have enough respect for the office and the power being conveyed, not to abuse it.  President Trump failed that test. 

Now he wants to raid money meant for military housing and military base improvements to pay for his wall.  And, after repeatedly decrying the amount of drugs coming across our border, he also wants to raid funds that Congress appropriated for proven counter drug programs.  Let me repeat that: In order to build a wall that would do little to stop drugs from coming across our border, President Trump wants to take money from law enforcement programs that actually prevent drugs from coming across our border, or from programs that enhance military readiness.  I wish I were making this up.

In the days and weeks ahead, the President’s emergency declaration — which amounts to an end run around both the Constitution and Congress — will be challenged both in the courts and in Congress, and it should be.  Over the past two years, we have seen the erosion of our institutional checks and balances in the face of creeping authoritarianism.  The time has come for Congress, and members of the President’s own party, to take a stand. 

Congress simply cannot afford to remain silent in the face of such an unprecedented violation of the separation of powers.  I would remind my Republican friends that with President Obama they shouted from every rooftop about the lurches of an imperial presidency.  In every executive order, they saw a threat to Congress’ powers.  In every speech, they surmised the machinations of a lawless strong man.  Now, when faced with a President who is literally using his executive powers to fund what Congress specifically would not, will my Republican friends echo those same concerns?

I am glad that some in the Republican Party have begun expressing their reservations about President Trump’s national emergency declaration.  But fleeting comments to reporters in the hallway are meaningless unless they are willing to follow up their words with their votes. Today, the House will vote to disapprove the President’s declaration. The joint resolution of disapproval will pass the House, and in short order the Senate will have to vote on it. That will be the true test. That will be the metric history uses to determine whether Republicans are willing to put our country, our Constitution, and Congress itself, over party.

While the President’s emergency declaration stumbles its way through the courts, I hope my Republican friends take a moment to take stock of where we are.  President Trump will be but a blip in our nation’s history.  For the sake of appeasing a man who made a foolish campaign promise that was never grounded in reality, will they forever change the course of the separation of powers in our country?  For the sake of appeasing a President who detests any limits or checks on his authority, will they forever diminish the role of Congress as a coequal branch of government? 

Today, I am reminded of words of caution written by George Washington, our Founding Father and our nation’s first President, in his farewell address.  The words are as true today, as they were when he wrote them over 223 years ago: 

“… It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. …… If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.…”

I will vote aye on the joint resolution of disapproval, and I urge all Senators to do the same.     

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CONTACT: Jay Tilton – 202-224-2667