As we are getting beyond the shutdown of the government in January of 2018, it seems like an appropriate time to think about exactly how we get into situations like this. Most Americans who managed to take and pass a basic class on government in high school (or earlier) should have learned about how laws are actually passed. Of course, that very basic lesson isn’t very close to reality, but it’s definitely worth remembering now.
The pundits have been overdrive pointing fingers over who should be blamed for the current shutdown, but only a few are digging at least a little deeper – commenting on the logistics of avoiding another shutdown in February. Donald Trump is the primary focus of those discussions, primarily because our Congress isn’t like those old government classes described it. Theoretically, Congress is supposed to make laws, and the President is supposed to enforce them. As part of our “checks and balances”, enforcement includes signing bills into law. Of course, there is also the presidential power of the veto, which is what our current Congress is probably worried about happening when it comes to (for the moment) our spending and immigration bills.
If you don’t remember talk in the classroom about presidents exerting a great deal of power over Congress or involving themselves in the drafting of or debate over bills, you probably didn’t fall asleep in class. That is something that was rarely taught in any classroom, since it wasn’t drafted into our Constitution. However, it is the reason why many people became highly annoyed with President Obama for “legislating from the White House” – something our current Congress is theoretically supposed to fix now with DACA legislation.
Right now, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and the Senate have been saying that they are annoyed with President Trump for not telling them explicitly what laws he’s willing to sign into law. If that sounds to you like they are trying to please a dictator by going through motions in Congress, your aren’t far from the truth. The problem we have now is that Congress stopped attempting to making laws on its own decades ago, thanks to the high degree of partisanship in American politics and presidents who did not back away from exerting more power than they probably should have when it comes to making laws.
Trump had characterized Obama as a power-grabbing tyrant because of this behavior, so perhaps he is only willing to tell Congress what he’s willing to sign into law as opposed to outright telling them which laws to pass. No matter what, the end result is the same – Congress is left with three choices:
Do nothing – Don’t even try to figure out what Trump will sign, and just don’t bother trying to pass any laws. Of course, this would probably lead to them all being voted out of office, but it is still one option open to them.
Try to guess what Trump wants – This apparently will be just a guessing game, since it seems that Trump has issues with saying what he wants, and – more importantly – sticking to it long enough for Congress to actually act on it. Since Trump is used to people jumping to appease him, this probably will never work well. Congress moves much slower than the executives employed by Trump’s (former) businesses.
Pass only veto-proof laws – This rule would apply to the big issues, so it’s unlikely that Congress will actually make this choice. That doesn’t change the fact that this is probably the best solution they have for their current problem – an executive who easily changes his mind.
People have said that the Trump administration would change history, and they’re probably right. If it forces Congress to go back to its roots, re-learn the nearly extinct art of statesmanship, and manage to get work done without needing a presidential signature to enact laws, that would be a significant change for the better. At the very least, it would restore strength to our system of checks and balances, and perhaps chip away at a little of the power that has been grabbed by the executive branch over the years.