Senate Floor Address Of Appropriations Vice Chair Patrick Leahy, In Support Of The Joint Res. Of Disapproval Of Pres. Trump’s Declaration Of A National Emergency

When President Trump declared a national emergency, citing a “crisis” at the southern border, he did so for only one reason: to do an end-run around Congress and the Appropriations Committee, and use taxpayer money to build a wall on the southern border that Congress has refused to fund. 

For three years, he failed to convince Congress that his wall was a good idea.  For three years, he requested that Congress fund his cynical campaign promise to build a “big beautiful” wall on the southern border, and for three years Congress refused.  Even when his own party controlled both chambers of Congress, he could not convince enough members that it was a good idea.

Instead of accepting that we live in a democracy and he is not a monarch, instead of accepting that in a democracy there are two other co-equal branches of government that can constrain his actions, the President has decided to ignore the constitution and the will of Congress and go it alone.

Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution 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.  And in a democracy, the President must respect those decisions.

After not getting what he wanted, however, this President has invoked the National Emergencies Act, stretching the powers granted to him under that act beyond all recognition, and declared a national emergency on the southern border.  He is not responding to a national emergency.  There is no crisis on our southern border requiring such extreme action.  What kind of a national emergency is declared only after you lose a three-year funding fight?  What kind of national emergency is resolved by a multi-year construction project?  The truth is clear; he is abusing this authority as a means to a political end. 

When Congress enacted the National Emergencies Act of 1976, conveying certain powers to the President to use in the event of a true emergency that required quick action, 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.  Presidential emergency powers should only be invoked in true times of crisis.  It is an abuse of power to invoke these authorities because he could not do what he wanted any other way.

Now the President wants to raid money meant for military housing and military base improvements to pay for his wall.  Will he take money for Camp Lejeune, which was hit by Hurricane Florence? Or for Tyndall Air Force base, which was flattened by Hurricane Michael?   What about money for schools for military families, like the school at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, or a child development center at Joint Base Andrews, in Maryland?  Or essential training facilities to ensure military readiness, like a special operations training facility at Fort Bragg, North Carolina?   Congress chose to fund these projects over his ineffective, wasteful wall.  Congress used its constitutional power of the purse to set priorities for how to invest the American people’s hard earned tax dollars.

The President is trying to label opponents of his action as weak on border security or weak on crime.  This is nonsense.  He wanted $5.7 billion for the wall.  Instead, Congress approved a border security package with money for fencing, along with technology at and between the ports of entry, and additional personnel.  This is real border security, not a political stunt.  Now the President is saying to us, “thank you for your views, but I will do it my way.”  Where will it stop? 

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 understand that Senator Lee has introduced a bill to reform the National Emergencies Act.  I appreciate the thought that he has put into this issue and I will review his legislation.  But make no mistake – legislation to fix future abuses of this law does not address the abuses that are happening now.  His bill does not address the fact that this President is trying to do an end-run around Congress - Democrats and Republicans alike - and cynically using an emergency declaration to fund a request that we would not approve.  We must send a message to the President that this is unacceptable.

I hope my Republican friends take a moment to take stock of where we are.  President Trump will be but a moment 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 not stand up for the institution in which they serve?  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?  Now is the time for country over party. 

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

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