- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The dinner I was enjoying with a senior Republican senator back in 2013 kept being interrupted as his cellphone chimed and he was forced to step away from the table to take the call from one or another of his colleagues.

It was the evening that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid finally pulled the trigger on his threat to use what was then described as the “nuclear option” to effectively eliminate the filibuster as applied to presidential appointments. Republicans had threatened similar action when they controlled the Senate and Democrats blocked confirmation of many of President George W. Bush’s appointees, but backed away when they contemplated what might happen when the Democrats won a majority.

Mr. Reid was not a contemplative sort; neither he nor his colleagues gave much thought to the future. My dinner companion that evening was a believer in tradition and process. He said that in frustration over what was going on, he finally told Mr. Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to “go ahead, but know when you eliminate the filibuster we will someday take back the Senate and when we do, you won’t believe what we’ll do because of what you are doing today.”

He was right, of course, because Mr. Reid had forgotten in his haste to get what he and his colleagues wanted at that moment in time, ignored the reasons for the roadblocks he was so insistent on removing; roadblocks designed to protect minority rights in what had once been aptly described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” but which was rapidly becoming something else entirely. It was Mr. Reid’s haste to get his way back then that opened the door and allowed a Republican president with a Republican Senate majority to remake the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, underscoring the accuracy of my dinner companion’s prediction.

Republicans and many conservatives were furious with Mr. Reid at the time, but are delighted with the consequences of his action today because their party now controls the White House and the Senate are also applauding President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency that will allow him to shuffle funds around so that he can begin construction of his “wall” in spite of Congress’ refusal to provide the monies he requested for the purpose. It’s the Democrats who are now apoplectic, threatening court action to stop him and claiming that the president is undermining the constitution and flagrantly ignoring Congress. They are partly right; he is ignoring them as his predecessor did and as future occupants of the Oval Office are likely to do because they gave them the authority to do so and applauded when presidents of their own party did the same.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded the White House that a Democratic president could do what President Trump is doing; use the power to declare a national emergency to, for example, implement gun control or climate change measures that would never win a majority vote in Congress. She would like that because like many of her progressive colleagues, she is upset not with the fact that the president has the power to rule, as President Obama once out it, “with a telephone and a pen,” but with the ways in which Mr. Trump is exercising that power. She and her colleagues applauded Mr. Obama when, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley reminds us, he bragged during a State of the Union address that he would act on his own to implement immigration reform measures that had failed to win majority support in Congress.

The Founders in drafting the U.S. Constitution, believed the tension between the branches insistent upon protecting their own turf and extending their influence would maintain the balance so vital to the maintenance of a free republic, but failed to contemplate a day when one branch would be more interested in its members’ comfort and security than in exercising the powers reserved to it. Over the years, presidents of both parties have happily accumulated and exercised more and more power to act on their own not by seizing it, but because Congress has handed it over to avoid making hard decisions of its own.

The problem is that power surrendered is rarely recovered. It was perhaps unwise to grant presidents the power to simply declare national emergencies and act unilaterally, but the spectacle of blaming them for using that power seems wildly hypocritical.

• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.

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