Progressive Democrats, including President Biden, constantly complain about threats to democracy. And yet, they are more than willing to disregard the democratic process if that’s what it takes to get their way. Biden’s half-trillion-dollar student loan “forgiveness” overreach is the latest and most egregious example.
Progressives have increasingly embraced the “one person, one vote, once” view of democracy. Once their candidate is elected president, it is his (or eventually her) job to implement the progressive agenda.
If the president has the votes in Congress to pass that agenda through the normal, constitutionally mandated process, fine. Go with that.
But if he doesn’t have the votes, progressive Democrats will demand that he do whatever it takes to implement the agenda anyway. Because the ends – that is, the progressive vision – is more important than the constitutionally-prescribed process.
You can hear progressives’ justifications for taking such anti-democratic steps in their stringent pleas for the president to act. Warnings like: “Climate change is too important to wait for Congress to act” and “The poor need help now.”
It didn’t start with Biden. There was President Obama’s “I have a pen and a phone” proclamation. If he could get Congress to pass his agenda, great. If not, he would act on his own. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was his biggest unilateral step.
But there were other overreaches: entering into what were essentially treaties with foreign nations such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and other nations to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and even Obama’s U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. Obama declined to put those agreements to the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote of the Senate because he knew he would lose. To Obama and the left, trying to address climate change and imposing limits on Iran were more important than the Constitution.
Following the Obama executive-action model, Biden is taking even bigger and bolder steps.
Of course, that’s a process we criticize when other countries engage in it. Once voted into power (think, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia), these strongmen begin to consolidate that power so they can impose their agenda. If they can get their legislators to go along, so much the better. But in their (and the progressive) vision, the job of the elected representatives of the people is to validate the executive’s agenda.
The framers of the Constitution took steps to stop such efforts. While there are three equal branches of the government (the legislative, executive and judicial), the Constitution makes the legislative branch, Congress, the first among equals.
Tax and spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, or at least they’re supposed to. Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan would cost the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) about $1.5 trillion over 10 years. And that’s only if Biden stops there. Progressives will push him to do more, and there are always more votes to buy.
As for the Senate, it provides its advice and consent on treaties. But Obama decided to call some treaties by a different name and never submitted them to the Senate.
Fortunately, there is still one roadblock on this executive overreach: the judicial branch.
Unlike the banana republics, the United States still has an independent judiciary. And even though many judges have strong political leanings, no one knows, or controls, in advance how the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, will decide.
That judicial independence is precisely why progressive Democrats called on Biden to pack the court with at least four additional justices. And why they suggested imposing age and term limits on the Supreme Court.
None of them cared about age or term limits if that would have cut short the career of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The Supreme Court isn’t broken, as they claimed. It just stood in the way of the all-powerful president model.
The real problem created by the progressives’ demand for executive overreach is it vastly increases the importance of the presidential election. If an all-powerful president can singlehandedly implement a party’s agenda, that added importance increases the incentive to engage in election fraud or to challenge elections. Just as President Trump challenged, and still rejects, the 2020 election.
But remember that before Trump rejected the 2020 election results, Hillary Clinton and many of her fellow Democrats rejected the 2016 election results.
Encouraging a sitting president to bypass the democratic process that requires passing bills and treaties through Congress sets a terrible precedent. It will only make the fight for the White House more important and costly, and will likely result in even more claims of a stolen election.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.
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This story was originally published August 30, 2022 8:00 AM.