A Powerful Appeal for Checks and Balances

Conservative Ben Sasse calls out Republicans and Democrats for abuse of executive authority.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

When George W. Bush expanded the unilateral powers of the presidency, Democrats called it a dangerous precedent. Republicans allowed it.

When Barack Obama expanded the unilateral powers of the presidency, Republicans called it a dangerous precedent. Democrats allowed it.

The growth of the Executive State and the abrogation of Congress’s authority are real and present threats to the Constitution’s balance of powers, and yet U.S. political leaders—and those voters who mindlessly follow them—stood mute while “their guy” grabbed power.

This selective outrage, this hypocrisy, got called out in the Senate on Thursday. Ben Sasse, a freshman Republican senator from Nebraska, challenged his fellow lawmakers to join him in a “thought experiment."

Imagine President Trump has been propelled into the White House. ... He signs an executive order to turn the Peace Corps into stone masons and build a wall. He shutters the Department of Education and, by executive order, turns the Department of the Interior into the classiest oil company the world has ever known.

So what happens next? ... After having raged against a supposedly lawless president, [would Republicans] suddenly find that they are actually OK with a strongman president, so long as he’s wearing the same color jersey that they are? He may be a lawless sonuvagun but, some would say, he’s our lawless sonuvagun. Would the ends justify the means?

Of course, that’s what would happen. Republicans would fall in line behind Trump or any other GOP president who gives lip service to bipartisanship before signing rafts of executive orders.

Should Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders win the presidency, does anybody think Democrats will press a GOP-led Congress to reassert its authority?

I’m aware of the structural problems that contribute to congressional gridlock. I understand the frustrations of presidents elected on the promise to end it, and who legitimately want Washington to address the nation’s problems. But I worry that in a system dominated by a feckless duopoly, Democratic and Republican leaders have learned to do just one thing together: surrender.

Surrender to their worst, most partisan instincts. “Would the ends justify the means?” Surrender the ideals of compromise, comity, and of putting the country ahead of one’s party. Surrender the balance of powers. Surrender the authority of Congress. History tells us that when a populace is angry, afraid, and exploited, the slippery slope can lead, if unchecked, to an all-powerful chief executive, the ultimate surrender.

Sasse is a Yale-educated historian using his first Senate speeches to position himself as the body’s conscience.

I think the weakness of the Congress is not just undesirable, but is actually a dangerous thing for America. ... I don’t think this because I am a Republican and the current occupant of the White House is a Democrat. In fact, I think we need to have this debate now precisely because we don’t know who is going to control the White House next.

I think it, rather, because I have taken an oath of office to the Constitution; and I’ll still hold this same view when a Republican president next tries to reach beyond his or her constitutional powers.

Is anybody listening?