Saturday, May 20, 2017

Size the office to fit the man

Donald Trump at the podium photo by Gage Skidmore
photo by Gage Skidmore
 Donald Trump’s recent behaviour has provoked dark thoughts among American opinion writers. Ross Douthait, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has raised the possibility of declaring Mr. Trump medically unfit for his job and invoking the 25 amendment to the US constitution to remove him.

That is a spectacularly bad idea. It is, to paraphrase Orwell, a bad idea even though National Review says it’s a bad idea. For one thing, the authors of the 25th amendment intended it to deal with a medical crisis, not a policy disagreement or even justified reservations about the character of a president. For another, it doesn’t deal with the structural or even the psychological problems the Trump presidency raises.

Ross Douthait’s article betrays the essential problem with his idea in a telling use of the passive voice:

The presidency is not just another office. It has become, for good reasons and bad ones, a seat of semi-monarchical political power, a fixed place on which unimaginable pressures are daily brought to bear, and the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over.
The powers of the American presidency did not simply alight on the office. Step by step, from the National Security Act of  1947 to the 2001 Authorization of use of military force, the United States Congress has created the powers so many people consider dangerous in the hands of Donald Trump.

What Congress has done, Congress can undo. If enough American legislators consider Donald Trump too irresponsible to trust with the arbitrary power to wage an unlimited “war on terror” they can end the war. They passed the authorization for the use of military force; they can repeal it. Congress has the power to regulate the military forces of the United States; they can pass regulations to impose almost any discipline they think Mr. Trump needs. The United States constitution assigns Congress, not the the president, the exclusive power to declare war, which implies Congress also has the power to remain at peace.

If, in the process, these changes to the definition of the presidency of the United States move the office towards toward greater accountability and less unguided discretion, they may make the world, and not least their own country, a lot safer. They may even improve the state of American democracy, which the national security state and the imperial presidency has eroded.

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