Democrats and liberals are genuinely and honestly terrified about the “threats to democracy” that have emerged in Trump’s wake, from insurrections at the Capitol to extremist right-wing efforts to take over the offices that supervise the counting of votes. But given their alarm over this country’s future, they are curiously silent about significant threats to American republicanism—threats that emerged in the Obama years and have come roaring back with a vengeance in the Biden years.
I don’t mean “threats to the Republican Party,” but rather threats to the good working order of the American institutions and systems that have made this country the greatest political experiment in human history.
Adam J. White takes up the issue of liberal efforts to delegitimize the Supreme Court, and by extension, the judicial branch, in our cover story this month, and I commend his brilliant and thorough piece to you. But what of the executive branch’s attack on the powers of the legislative branch? And what of the legislative branch’s acquiescence in the undermining of its constitutional power and authority?
The most blatant example in American history of this attack and this acquiescence came in August, when President Biden announced he was using an executive order to retire student-loan debt for as many as 60 million Americans at a cost estimated to be between $500 billion and $1 trillion.
This is money Congress neither appropriated nor authorized, and according to our Constitution, any and all such power resides in the Congress. Biden declared he had the authority to do so under legislation written in 2003 to help enlistees in the military cope with student debt. He combined this preposterous effort to balloon legislative writ with the claim that this also fell under the “national emergency” powers granted to him by…Covid.
The president is not supposed to be able to take his staff, strike a stone, and have $500 billion bubble up from it. His job is to administer the funds Congress has provided the government. In any case, a simple sense of proportion should have stayed his hand here. But the unimaginable sums that have flowed out of government coffers since 2020—something like $6 trillion in new spending—have somehow made the idea of spending hundreds of billions seem…modest. Or something.
The “executive action in place of legislation” gambit has been accelerating over the past decade. In his frustration with congressional Republicans who refused to allow his agenda to advance, Barack Obama simply decided to ignore the Constitution’s clear design—the design that directs the president to administer the laws Congress passes and to spend the money Congress authorizes to carry out those laws. Though he had said, on 22 occasions, that he did not have the power as president to provide legal status to illegal immigrants, and though legislation to that effect had failed in Congress after Democrats were crushed in the 2014 midterms, he did exactly that through a series of executive orders. (They were immediately stayed by a court and finally, after multiple proceedings, ruled unconstitutional in 2022.)
Democrats in Congress have said and done absolutely nothing to object to this usurpation of their authority. That is because they do not care about their authority. They have ends, and they want those ends met, and if they can be met by executive action rather than legislation they cannot get through the system, then that’s fine with them.
It should not be fine with anyone. This shameless example of “The ends justify the means” thinking is extraordinarily destructive to our system of government because “the means” are exactly what our government is. Its purpose isn’t to spend money. Its purpose is to preserve, protect, and defend the liberties provided to us by God and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
It is true to say those liberties would be under threat from an organized assault on our voting system. It is even more true to say that those liberties are under threat right now from an unprecedented assault on our constitutional system.
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