Noah Ente: The real emergency for conservatives

Sunday, March 10, 2019 - 4:34pm

In season two of Netflix’s original series “House of Cards,” the show’s main character, fictitious U.S. President Frank Underwood, tells the audience, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties. Never regret.” In the past few weeks, President Donald Trump has shown he is taking a similar approach in his quest to fund his most sought-after agenda item: a wall on the southern border.

On Feb. 15, Trump declared a national state of emergency for the current situation on the United States border with Mexico. Amid his fears of increasing illegal immigration, the president has continuously proposed the construction of a wall on the border in an attempt to dissuade unlawful crossing of the U.S. border. After weeks of partisan deadlock in Congress and the ensuing government shutdown, Trump announced he intends to use this national emergency to direct federal funds toward building the border wall he has championed throughout his presidency.

The move drew expected criticism from those who have been opposed to the construction of the wall, with many of those critics being outside of the president’s core base. Critics like newly-elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, most of whom come from liberal opposition and conservative skeptics, have long cited both their moral concerns and questions about the effectiveness of the wall as justification for their stance. However, aside from any humanitarian concerns, questions about both the character of the U.S. as a country and doubts about how effective a wall would be in stopping illegal immigration, Trump’s decision to use an executive order to declare a national emergency is cause for a different type of opposition.

Some conservatives see Trump’s use of an executive order to achieve his political goals as a harmful precedent. Some are especially concerned for a future when a liberal executive occupies the Oval Office and wishes to implement his or her policies without going through the constitutional procedure. In a Feb. 4 conversation with CNN, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted, “The whole idea that presidents — whether it's President Trump, President Warren or President Sanders — can declare an emergency and somehow usurp the separation of powers and get into the business of appropriating money for specific projects without Congress being involved, is a serious constitutional question." For a president to simply push a desired political accomplishment into action via executive order to influence the outcome in the constitutional process, is a vast and sweeping use of executive power. And to disregard the power of Congress, one of whose main functions is to decide the budget of the country, is equally as alarming. Political motions such as the appropriation of government funds are intended to pass through both houses. The potential use of this case in justifying authoritarian measures is certainly concerning to many conservatives. Even Democratic leaders have openly addressed such a possibility in their criticism of the president’s decision.

Furthermore, the use of this precedent by a leader of any party is at the very least a constitutional question — if not a nightmare — for conservatives like me who are wary of the powers of government. Trump’s national emergency serves as an example of a gross misuse of federal power and an especially grand overreach by the executive branch. This implementation of an executive order, especially for the rapid redirection of funds that can occur under a national state of emergency, is troubling. It bears resemblance to the monarchical orders and decrees our founding fathers sought to abolish in order to create a free country with free citizens.

A national state of emergency, and the executive power that comes with it, should be used in the event there is truly a pressing problem Congress does not or will not have the time to address. Former President George W. Bush’s declaration of a state of emergency following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, is a proper example that meets such qualifications. In this case, though Trump may not be happy with the settlement that was reached, Congress has taken steps to at least temporarily address the issue at the border. As Jonah Goldberg, author of “Suicide of the West” and a writer for National Review, wrote, “the lack of a political triumph for a president isn’t a national emergency,” and it is inappropriate for Trump to use this last-resort measure to force “his desired policy through the political system."

What is also concerning is the president’s willingness to employ this order to direct military personnel and funding towards the construction of the controversial barrier. Trump has publicly discussed the idea of not only utilizing military supplies and funding, but deploying active military as construction workers to build the border wall. These measures would take funds intended for military relief in places with natural disasters and other true emergencies such as California and Puerto Rico, as well as projects designed to improve the infrastructure of our national defense, like Navy SEAL training.

The president’s move to use his powers as Commander in Chief to deploy servicemen on U.S. soil to carry out his domestic political agenda is itself an alarming notion. The act lends credence to the charge by many of Trump’s critics that he has exhibited authoritarian tendencies throughout his presidency. If — after having his desires for Mexico to pay for the barrier and subsequently for Congress to appropriate funding for it — Trump indeed uses U.S. armed forces and a questionable national emergency declaration to build his wall, the accusations will bear significantly more weight.

In an honest look at recent decisions by the president, one can see both the hypocrisy and casualties that have been or could be present in the manner in which he has sought to get the border wall built. In 2014, Trump rightly criticized then-President Barack Obama for taking unilateral executive action on immigration without congressional approval, with measures such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals included in the plans. In February, Trump chose to use an executive order to ram his own immigration legislation through.

Furthermore, just after declaring the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border a national emergency, Trump said that he didn’t need to declare the emergency and did so because he simply wanted the wall built faster. The contradictions and hypocrisy here could not be more evident.

The casualties of Trump’s decision have not yet completely materialized. There will certainly be a contentious legal battle over the issue, in which several states have already sued against the president’s national emergency. Should the policy go into effect, it will cut streams of funding needed to deal with past and future natural disasters and pay for Pentagon security and defense projects. With this funding in jeopardy, casualties of human lives, property and more could potentially result.

Now, it is up to Republicans in both houses of Congress to remain consistent in their rebuke and vote against Trump’s national emergency in a bipartisan effort. While many Republicans — out of a variety of concerns — have sought to avoid anything resembling a referendum on the border wall, it is more important that the party maintain the values that have led myself and so many Americans to support them. Such a use of executive power is frightening no matter which kind of policies are put into place through this unethical method, and it is up to Republicans to recognize this truth.

Though defiant GOP senators and representatives will surely face immense pressure from Trump, his enthusiastic base and many of their own constituents, the long-run health and survival of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement are worth the risk of short-term dissatisfaction and electoral risk.

Efforts to obstruct these actions by the president seem to be underway. On March 4, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, announced that there would be “at least 10” GOP senators willing to vote against the national emergency declaration along with him. If true, this is an encouraging prospect. Yet to bypass President Trump’s almost certain veto of a resolution against the emergency, there would need to be a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House. Eleven senators is certainly significant, but it will take many more Republican congressional officials to do what is best for their party and country and step forward against the president’s wrongful desire. Only then can Congress finally make Trump regret his unscrupulous efforts to achieve his signature policy.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.