At their swearing in, members of Congress take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Few members would openly admit to violating that oath. Nancy Pelosi just did.
In filing a lawsuit against Donald Trump’s border emergency late last week, the House speaker claimed that “the House will once again defend our democracy and our Constitution, this time in the courts.” But the facts demonstrate that the last time the House defended the Constitution in the courts, Pelosi actively worked to undermine that defense of constitutional principles.
Having clearly been on both sides of the issue, Pelosi violated her constitutional duty when she said the House had no business going to court to defend its “power of the purse”—or she violated her duty last week, when she sent the House to court to do just that. Whichever side of the argument one favors, she abrogated her pledge of fidelity to constitutional first principles—as opposed to the raw exercise of political power.
Lawsuits, Then and Now
The complaint Pelosi filed last week claims that, in using the National Emergencies Act to redirect funds towards border security, President Trump violated both underlying statutes and Congress’ constitutional duty to appropriate funds. Unfortunately, however, as I pointed out at the time of the border declaration, it did not represent the first time the executive has violated both statutes and Congress’ appropriations power.
The text of Obamacare did not contain an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies, which offset discounts on co-pays and deductibles provided to low-income individuals. The Obama administration requested funds for those subsidies, just as Trump requested funds for border security. In both cases, Congress turned down those requests—and in both cases, the executive concocted legal arguments to spend the funds anyway.
But when the House of Representatives sued in 2014 seeking to block President Obama’s unconstitutional appropriation of funds, did Pelosi—who claimed last week to “defend our democracy and our Constitution”—support the complaint? Quite the contrary. In fact, she filed two legal briefs in court objecting to the House’s suit, and claiming that Obamacare implied an appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies.
Abrogating Congress’ Institutional Prerogatives
But put the specific facts of the two cases aside. It seems a stretch for this observer, but assume for a moment that one can squint hard enough and find an appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies in Obamacare, but not a legal justification for President Trump’s border security declaration. Would Pelosi’s statements, if not totally consistent, at least contain enough of a good-faith argument not to represent a violation of her constitutional duty?
In a word, no. In the Obamacare lawsuit, she not only attacked House Republicans’ claims regarding the merits of their case, she attacked the House’s right to bring the claim against the executive in court.
When it comes to whether the House has suffered an injury allowing it to file suit, compare this language in the House’s lawsuit against Trump: “The House has been injured, and will continue to be injured, by defendants’ unlawful actions, which, among other things, usurp the House’s legislative authority,” with Pelosi’s claims in her brief regarding the Obamacare lawsuit:
Legislators’ allegations that a member of the executive branch has not complied with a statutory requirement do not establish the sort of “concrete and particularized” injury sufficient to satisfy Article III’s standing requirements….
[Permitting the House’s suit] would disturb long-settled and well-established practices by which the political branches mediate interpretive disputes about the meaning of federal law, and it would encourage political factions within Congress to advance political agendas by embroiling the courts in innumerable political disputes that are appropriately resolved using those long-established practices….Allowing suit in this case undermines, rather than advances, [Members’ institutional] interests—inevitably subjecting Congress to judicial second-guessing never contemplated by the Framers of the Constitution and compounding opportunities for legislative obstruction in ways that could greatly increase congressional dysfunction.
Also compare Pelosi’s language when talking about remedies available to the House with regards to Trump: “The House has no adequate or available administrative remedy, and/or any effort to obtain an administrative remedy would be futile,” with her claims that House Republicans had all sorts of options available to them to stop President Obama’s unconstitutional payments, short of going to court:
Concluding that there is standing in this case is…completely unnecessary given alternative and more appropriate tools available to legislators to object to executive branch actions that they view as inconsistent with governing law….
To start, legislators may always challenge executive action by enacting corrective legislation that either prohibits the disputed executive action or clarifies the limits or conditions on such action….Further, Congress has other means to challenge disputed interpretive policies, including many that do not require the concurrence of both houses. For example, Congress can hold oversight hearings, initiate legislative proceedings, engage in investigations, and, of course, appeal to the public.
One really cannot parse it any other way: Pelosi took diametrically opposing viewpoints on the House’s ability to sue the executive in the Obamacare and border security lawsuits. Or, to put it more bluntly, she put partisan allegiances—to Obama, and against Trump—ahead of her oath of office to uphold the Constitution.
Put Principle over Politics
I find Trump’s border security declaration troubling for the same reason I found the Obamacare payments troubling: they usurp Congress’ rightful constitutional authority. I took some solace in knowing that several congressional Republicans—not enough, but several—voted against the emergency declaration, while many others who voted with the president nevertheless expressed strong misgivings about the move, as well they should.
Compare that to congressional Democrats, not a single one of whom aired so much as a peep about Barack Obama “stealing from appropriated funds,” to use Pelosi’s own words regarding the Obamacare lawsuit. Would that more elected officials—both Republicans and Democrats—put constitutional first principles above partisan affiliations and political gain.