Skip to main content

The principal reason the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate rebuffed President Donald Trump on his border-wall emergency order Thursday afternoon was principle itself.

The dozen Republicans who helped comprise the 59-41 vote to block the President’s groundbreaking emergency order do favour, in one degree or another, the construction of a wall on the country’s Mexican border. But they broke from Mr. Trump in a sober rebellion over an issue broader than that – the separation of powers at the heart of the American system that gives equal weight to the legislative and executive branches even as it invests special prerogatives in Congress.

This distinction between the Canadian political system, which melds executive and legislative functions, and the U.S. system, which separates them, is central to the dispute that has preoccupied Capitol Hill for more than a fortnight and that accounts for the unusual phenomenon of lawmakers voting against a political policy on immigration that they generally endorse.

“This is not about border security,” conservative Republican Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania said in a telephone interview with a handful of correspondents just before the vote. “It’s about the process the President has chosen. It undermines the very important principle of separation of powers and the responsibility the Congress has to determine how money is spent.”

Throughout the broad sweep of American history, Congress and the White House have struggled for predominance – a tension prescribed by the 18th-century Constitution that helps explain many of the country’s defining episodes from its fragile postcolonial life to its current status as a global superpower. In contemporary times, the balance between the two has shifted with great consequence and often with great speed, leaning toward the president, for example, in the middle years of Richard Nixon’s administration only to lean toward Congress as Watergate unfolded, reversing course to the White House under Ronald Reagan and then again swaying toward Capitol Hill again in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term.

For the first two years of Mr. Trump’s term, the President himself set the agenda, dominated the Washington conversation and even influenced the flow of legislation onto the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives, then both controlled by his adopted Republican Party. But now, after the GOP was repudiated in November’s midterm congressional elections and the Democrats seized control of the House, the power calculus seems to be swinging back to Capitol Hill.

Indeed, Thursday’s vote against the President’s extraordinary border-wall initiative was a leading indicator of that shift, even though lawmakers in both parties and both chambers of Congress know they do not have sufficient support to override a veto from Mr. Trump, which the President has promised to issue. On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Trump tweeted: “VETO!”

But even without the dramatic Democratic takeover of the House, it is likely that a handful of Republicans would have rebelled against the extension of executive power that the President’s emergency order represented.

Mr. Trump is moved more by instinct and impulse than by ideology, but Republican lawmakers are governed more by the latter, and implicit in their political creed is a suspicion of executive power and a contempt for centralized rule. That is the central element of their conservative faith, buffeted by their disdain for former president Barack Obama’s willingness to issue 276 executive orders, many when Congress failed to heed his calls.

Although Republicans embrace a small-government philosophy that leads them to be suspicious of executive overreach, in recent decades much of the assertion of congressional prerogatives has come from the Democratic side. Former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who served in the Senate when his state of West Virginia was devoutly Democratic, was the supreme guardian of the rights of Congress, even when Democratic presidents such as Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) were in the White House.

The ethos of Mr. Byrd, who died in 2010 and was the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, still lives on Capitol Hill. “The Constitution divided power so that no one person, no single branch of government, could gain complete power,” Mr. Byrd said in a famous lecture he delivered 21 years ago on the history of the Senate. Aware that his audience – not in the current Senate chamber but in the ancient original Senate chamber in the depths of the Capitol – included members of the legislative body from both parties, he added two sentences that stand as an apt analysis of Thursday’s vote:

“The legislative branch must be eternally vigilant over the powers and authorities vested in it by the Constitution – eternally vigilant. This is vitally important to the security of our constitutional system of checks and balances and separation of powers.”

The Trump emergency order was especially vulnerable to congressional repudiation because it undercut not only the broad lawmaking functions of Congress but also the tradition of having spending bills originate in the House rather than in the Senate. This power is jealously guarded by members of the House in their dual struggle – first against the powers of the Senate and then against the powers of the president.

Contemporary politics played a part in the GOP rebellion. The ardour of the Republican opponents to the emergency order grew ever stronger in recent weeks as a series of Democratic presidential aspirants set forth their political platforms. In explaining his opposition to the President’s executive order despite his support for the border wall, Mr. Toomey raised the spectre of Elizabeth Warren, the left-leaning senator from Massachusetts seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, issuing an executive order on climate change some time in the future.

“Who knows what kind of unauthorized spending she would engage in without justification if we let this stand,” Mr. Toomey said. An hour later he, and 11 of his conservative compatriots, voted to reverse the Trump emergency order.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe