Trump’s comments, attitude can lead to altered role of legislature

Tam Cheetham-West

President Donald Trump has been applying pressure to Republican legislators at the federal level, suggesting last week that Republican senators should not leave town unless a reform bill for Obamacare is passed. This week, one of Trump’s tweets implied that Republicans in Congress have a responsibility to “protect their president.” Comments like these which unknowingly redefine the role of the legislative majority are an attack on the relative independence of the legislature by constitutional design — and by extension — an attack on American democracy.

Legislators do not serve at the president’s pleasure. Their sworn duty is to the Constitution of the United States, and their primary duty should be the representation of the constituents whose votes elevated them to their office. However, the reality is more complicated, mainly because of the party system.

The party system reduces the incentive for the legislature to serve as an effective check on executive power in a situation where the president’s party holds a majority in the House and Senate, as is now the case. This crucial role of the legislature comes with the risk of alienation from constituents and fellow party members because a popular president is the de facto leader of the party. A contemporary example is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, who this week became the target of the president’s angry tweets for voting against the American Health Care Act. She is one of a few Republicans who received public warnings from the president about “a lot of problems” they are expected to have as a result of their stance against the AHCA bill.

Such comments and overt pressure from the president pose a major problem for the future. We should not underestimate the power of precedent. If the president’s actions in this regard are normalized, there may be an expectation of full cooperation of legislative majorities with administrations of the same party in the future. Such a power system may be very selective about minority opinion and concerns. In the interim between legislative elections, the joint government will have near complete sway over the trajectory of the nation.

In such a scenario, no reprieve can be expected from the Supreme Court, especially when the government in power enjoys the support of a majority of Americans. Historically, the position of the executive and cooperating legislature only needs to be popular with Americans in order to enable flagrant disregard for Supreme Court rulings. The fact that the Supreme Court has limited power to enforce its rulings and cannot compel the executive and legislature to do so should make everyone wary of the possibility of the legislature falling almost completely under the executive influence.

President Trump’s attempts this past week to pressure Republican congressmen and Senators are small but critical steps in a dangerous direction — with potentially long-term repercussions.  

Tam Cheetham-West is a pure mathematics senior from Lagos, Nigeria.