Openly Insulting

Sarah Hickabee Sanders, Insulter of Congress

It’s hard to know what to say when the president’s press secretary openly insults member of Congress.

Sarah Sanders has, according to multiple reports, just claimed that Democrats in Congress are “not smart enough” to understand Trump’s tax returns.

This is amazing. Stunning. Beggars description.

One expects relations between members of opposing political parties to be somewhat antagonistic, although Republicans have taken that antagonism to ridiculous, harmful extremes. One expects the relationship between the president and Congress to be tense at times, especially between a president from one Party and a House of Congress under the control of another Party. To some extent, that tension is a deliberate part of our Constitution.

The Founders relied on the conventional division of governmental powers into three, legislative, executive, and judicial as the basis for the three branches of our federal government with the expectation that they would “check and balance” each other, to use the common phrase, that is, each branch would have the effect of limiting the powers of the other two.

This takes place in various ways. The President has the power to veto legislation that Congress passes. Federal judges have the power to find that laws violate the Constitution. They get their appointments from the president, subject to confirmation by the Senate. All revenue bills have to originate in the House of Representatives, so Congress exercises what we commonly call the “power of the purse” — the power to decide how much revenue will be available and how the federal government may spend that revenue. The two Houses of Congress play distinct roles in the process of removing any federal official via impeachment.

Congress has increasingly, since at least the New Deal, relied on administrative agencies to do much of the work of government. Such agencies, by definition, become part of the executive branch of government, where the president has considerable influence over how they operate, but since Congress creates them and authorizes their ability to make rules, still members of Congress can and do expect the persons who run administrative agencies to answer their questions about what they are doing and how.

The three branches are officially “coequal,” to use the weirdly redundant term most observers use to describe the three branches of the federal government, although one can, and “conservatives” have, made the argument that the legislative, or Congress, is actually the preeminent branch of government, which has a sort of roving power that the other two do not, and the power to make laws, usually with the input of the President, although Congress does have the final say, with the power to override a veto with two thirds agreement in both Houses.

Since World War II, with the huge importance that attached to foreign policy during the Cold War, the power of the presidency has grown enormously, to the point that, shortly before Nixon resigned, a prominent historian wrote a book under the title, The Imperial Presidency, which he updated in 2004. One indicator of this newly powerful presidency is the growth of the president’s staff, which still depends for its existence on funding from Congress, but on a daily basis, the staff works for the president and owes its primary loyalty to him.

Sanders’ contemptuous comment is only the most recent example of presidential appointees, some of whom underwent confirmation in the Senate to hold their jobs, treating members of Congress, and Congress as an institution, with disdain. So Attorney General Barr’s refusal to deliver the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is one obvious instance. The recent kerfuffle between the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee Maxine Waters (D — CA) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is another.

This is entirely unprecedented. Perhaps through gritted teeth, cabinet secretaries and presidential staff usually treat members of Congress with great respect and deference. It seems pretty obvious that Trump appointees get their scofflaw attitudes from their boss, who exhibits zero understanding of either the point of having a constitution or the specifics of our Constitution. His ignorance seems to spread to his appointees, most of whom seemed, before going to work for Trump, like intelligent people, although any willingness to work for Trump automatically casts doubt on one’s intelligence. Regardless, they should understand the Constitution that they, like the president, took an oath to support.

Gross ignorance of the Constitution is not a crime, but to the extent that it leads the president and his toadies to engage in criminal conduct, it is evidence suggesting that such conduct has occurred and is occurring, and so is more reason for the House to begin impeachment proceedings immediately.

It is a testament to the weird degradation of conservative political philosophy that our U.S. “conservatives” should be the people who seem, almost gleefully, to be busy working a serious erosion of the norms of our republic. Sad.