Democrats and Republicans are making a big push for to get voters out for Tuesday’s midterm elections, the big looming question is: Can the new Congress contain President Donald Trump’s impulses, as per the checks-and-balances outlined in the Constitution?
President Trump holds closed-door meetings with leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — adversaries of the United States — heaping them with praise and trashing U.S. institutions.
On the world stage, the United States is hard to push back against — it has a massive military, veto power at the U.N. Security Council, and a president who rejects multilateralism.
Checking his power rests on the shoulder of U.S. lawmakers. For the 54 percent of Americans who don’t approve of Trump’s policies and leadership, and who might like to see Congress do something to counter him, these midterms are high stakes.
Lawmakers occasionally try to hem the president’s foreign policies in, most recently focusing on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and a potential nuclear agreement with the kingdom in the wake of confirmation that it deliberately killed dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.
It remains to be seen whether they have the will to see these initiatives through and whether they succeed.
“A lot of people have been saying, ‘Well why doesn’t Congress do this, and why doesn’t Congress do that, why don’t they take him on directly?'” said Matthew Glassman of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
And the answer, in short, is: It’s party politics, stupid.
So, a Republican Congress is going to agree with a Republican president, on policy grounds. “When they do disagree, they’re going to try and do it in ways that don’t embarrass the president,” said Glassman.
He credited Trump with spending a lot of time talking with lawmakers (possibly owing to his daily 9 hours of “executive” discretionary time), and members of Congress, in turn, value their ability to influence him — an opportunity they’d lose if they were publicly combative with him.
They fight him in other ways, though: They ignore him, or just don’t do his bidding — for example, Congress did not fund his border wall with Mexico (yet), support his tariffs, or cut non-military discretionary funding (lawmakers increased it).
In fact, when it came to the budget, Congress put its own agenda forward and made Trump bend to it and sign something he was definitely not happy with.
The past two nearly two years would make one thing very clear to lawmakers and voters alike: President Trump’s relationship with Congress is unique and “pretty contentious,” said Glassman.
“A lot them don’t think much of him, as a person or a politician. I think they find his ability to knock them off their agenda, rhetorically, infuriating… they don’t like the scandals,” he said.
“I don’t see a ton of learning by Trump — I don’t seem him improving in his management of the White House, I don’t see him improving in his congressional relations…Trump, by far, has the worst reputation among with them, and the worst relationship with them
In order to understand what Congress could do, we need to understand what Congress, under the Constitution, can do. So we asked Glassman to give voters a clearer view of what voters can — and can’t — expect out of Congress.
The Constitutional mandate
The idea behind the checks and balances provided by the Constitution is to provide each branch of the government — the executive (that would be the president), the judicial, and the legislative — with powers that can reign in presidential authority on domestic and foreign policy.
It is essentially intended to prevent any of those actors from having “unilateral power to dominate the government,” said Glassman. This, he added, “forces these separate institutions … to struggle against each other to achieve their goals.”
There’s some overlapping powers, intertwining roles (for instance, congress makes laws that the president can veto), with each having a hand in the other’s activities.
Policy by purse
One of Congress’s many tools, he points out, is “the power of the purse.”
“The president may try to set a policy, but if he doesn’t have the money to execute it, then it can’t be done,” said Galssman, adding, “That, in effect, is making policy.”
For instance, right now, President Trump believes that he can deny citizenship to the children born to undocumented or illegal immigrants in the United States.
“You could imagine Congress writing an appropriations bill for the State Department saying ‘None of the money in this bill may be used to deny or otherwise adjudicate a passport for someone who is the child [who was born in the U.S.] of an illegal immigrant,'” said Glassman.
“And the beauty of Congress using an appropriations bill for this policy is that it’s hard to veto these massive appropriations bills over one little policy rider like that,” he added.
This would put President Trump in a tough spot — these omnibus spending bills contain a lot, and nixing them over one thing is tough.
Which is how President Trump came to sign the 2018 fiscal year spending bill, begrudgingly.
Reminding him that he’s not above the law
No executive order from the president can contradict the law — “the law is always supreme.”
The president has discretion in implementing the law, so “Where Congress is silent, the president has an opportunity to act within the bounds of that,” said Glassman.
Congress — well, the Senate — has not really driven a hard bargain with President Trump on his nominees, which means it has chosen not to fully use the leverage it has in shaping the executive branch.
Two of President Trump’s cabinet nominees, Andrew Puzder, for Secretary of Labor, and Ronny Jackson, for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, withdrew their nominations when it became clear they would not get the votes (Jackson, over allegations of excessive drinking and indiscriminately prescribing pain and sleeping medications, and Puzder, over accusations of conflict of interest, wage theft, and sexual harassment).
But many controversial nominees have made it through. For instance, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct by several women — one of whom testified under oath — was confirmed to the Supreme Court. And Gina Haspel, who reportedly ran a black site torture program for the CIA, is now that agency’s director.
“But I have been surprised that more senators haven’t tried to take a stand and block some of the more controversial nominees, either to bargain with the president for things they wanted or to send him a message,” said Glassman.
He explained that Congress probably has more say on who gets nominated than most would think, because there are lots of behind-the-scenes deals. But party pressures and maybe self interest also play a role.
Oversight by investigation
This is the area where Congress has been weakest on the president, said Glassman.
“Investigating his various corruptions and issues in the executive branch…this sort of oversight and investigation is probably the weakest spot,” he said.
Still, he added, this Republican Congress has had several open investigations into the Trump administration, and although the investigations haven’t gone far yet, it’s still remarkable.
But one chamber of Congress, he said, is “more than enough” to carry out greater oversight of the president, using the Ways and Means Committee chairman, for instance, could get President Trump’s tax returns.
There has to be the will to do this, of course, which might be more likely if the Democrats take the House.
For voters who might be looking more bluntly at the big picture, and wanting lawmakers to take direct action, it’s frustrating to watch lawmakers speak against a certain policy or nominee but still end up voting for it, which might lead one to think that they are all talk, no action.
“When it helps the president, when [Sen.] Lindsey Graham says, ‘Well, I think it’s fine if the president gets rid of birthright citizenship,’ then everyone says, ‘Oh, look, he’s helping [Trump] do that,’ but when senators say the opposite…people say, ‘Well, those are just words,'” said Glassman.
“I do think that words constrain the president, and rhetoric does constrain his possibilities, if only because they are seen as serious threats by the president for potential future action. I think that’s a lot of the reason, for instance, why he hasn’t fired [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions or [FBI special investigator Robert] Mueller.”