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With much of the country wringing its hands over Donald Trump, allow me to be the bearer of some good news: Several good things are happening to the American system of government as a result of his presidency. Admittedly, I am turning to the somewhat perverse law of unintended consequences to find these, but systems are retooling to protect themselves from President Trump and the result could be very healthy, both now and in the long run.
First, Congress is reawakening to its leadership role in policy-making and legislating. The founders understood Congress to be the “first” of the three branches, worrying whether there would be sufficient “energy” in the executive, while acknowledging that the judiciary, as Alexander Hamilton put it, would be “the least dangerous branch.” All of that has been turned on its head, with the modern presidency since Franklin Roosevelt vying with the courts for first place, while Congress keeps giving up its powers and is now a distant third in federal importance.
However, that seems to be changing. Congress is actually debating and making policy now, since President Trump does not seem interested in that. In health care, for example, Trump has made it clear that he cares less which version of health care replacement we get than getting one, notching a win on his presidential belt. So Congress has actively debated, now even in bipartisan discussions, key issues such as preexisting conditions, individual mandates, the extent of coverage, and the like. The president has left a sufficient policy vacuum that Congress has had to step up.
War powers are also bestirring our Congress. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) has long been a lone voice questioning the extensive war powers delegated to the president following 9/11. Now, perhaps more nervous with President Trump as commander in chief, the House Appropriations Committee surprisingly put forward a defense spending bill that removed the extensive war powers. Then House Speaker Paul Ryan had a surprise of his own, deleting the war powers limitation, but acknowledging that there was some way to have this debate. In addition, another amendment was added requiring that the president provide a report to Congress on his strategy vis-à-vis ISIS. So at least Congress is moving, again in a bipartisan fashion, to restore its constitutional power over war.
A second bright spot is a resurgence of federalism, a rebirth of action and authority at the state and local level. California is leading the way, opposing Trump policies on immigration and the environment with its own aggressive plans. Attorneys general in several states have joined to challenge Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Governors have risen up to point out to Congress how repeal of the Affordable Care Act could affect Medicaid and the opioid problem in their states. With government power traveling a one-way street to Washington, DC for decades, this reawakening of state power swings the pendulum back in a constitutional manner.
We could also say that the Trump presidency has changed the debate about checks and balances and separations of power in our constitutional republic. For years now, progressives have argued that these mechanisms built into the Constitution by the founders are archaic and prevent progress, stopping the implementation of the democratic voice of the people. Now people are friendlier toward these power-balancing mechanisms. Donald Trump has expressed frustration with the Constitution, calling it “a relic” and “very bad for America” because it encumbers action. Now many who were critical of checks and balances only months ago find them a comfort.
History swings like a pendulum, going too far in one direction but then shifting back toward an equilibrium. Several forces—Congress, state and local governments—are gathering energy to push back against the president. These welcome forces would not only counteract this president but also, in the larger picture, rebalance a federal government and presidency that have grown too powerful over the last century.
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