Donald Trump’s administration may only last four years, but its changes to America’s three co-equal branches of government will likely last much longer. Trump is systematically delegitimizing our system of checks and balances by arguing that the president should go unchecked, immune to any scrutiny from Congress.
The publication of the Mueller report made clear the numerous ways Trump tried to thwart any investigation of ties between his campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, including by firing the FBI director running the investigation, trying to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and asking then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the investigation, among other examples.
But since the report’s release, the president has gone even further to shield himself from Congress’ constitutional power to investigate and oversee the executive branch. In just the past few weeks, he and his administration have:
This is not normal.
Contrary to objections from Trump, congressional oversight is not “presidential harassment.” It is a principal underpinning the last 240 years of our republic. Entrenched in our federal system is the idea that the three branches of government are equal, and that no branch of government is free from public scrutiny —our famous system of “checks and balances.” One of the drafters of the Constitution, James Madison, made clear in the Federalist Papers the importance of establishing “subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner that each may be a check on the other.” In fact, the first congressional investigation of the executive branch was in 1791, and such investigations have continued ever since.
We have now arrived at a junction where this pillar of our republican government is being tested by a president who has decided that congressional oversight does not apply to him. Past administrations have stalled and negotiated with Congress over documents and testimony, occasionally holding back specific documents and delaying productions until certain conditions were met. But never before has the White House flatly refused to recognize the inherent oversight responsibilities of Congress.
If Trump succeeds in avoiding all congressional scrutiny, he will fundamentally change the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government and set up a dangerous precedent that will far outlive his administration. As our government was designed, the legislative branch — Congress — represents the interests of the American people and provides an important venue for the people to play a role, through their representatives, in how our government functions. Part of that role requires that our legislators (and those they represent) have a clear view into the White House and our federal agencies. Once closed by an unchecked presidency, that window is unlikely to reopen.
Congressional oversight plays a vitally important role in our democracy. It ensures that no branch of government is unaccountable. While elections are the ultimate check on executive power, our elections are only meaningful if voters can see what their elected officials are doing and make an informed choice at the ballot box.