The Test Facing Congress and the Incoming Trump Administration

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” James Madison wrote 228 years ago in Federalist Paper 51.

Those words are worth recalling as we watch President-elect Donald Trump working to put together his administration and set a legislative agenda for the coming years.

Last week, I wrote that our democracy would be in trouble no matter who won the election, and that remains the case, perhaps even more so now.

No one, perhaps even Trump himself, can say what kind of president he will be since he has said so many conflicting things in the past and has never held any public office.

Remember that back in May, his then campaign manager Paul Manafort told the Huffington Post, “He [Trump] needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He sees himself more as the chairman of the board, than even CEO, let alone COO.”

Then last July, Donald Trump Jr. was reported to have reached out to a senior adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Trump Jr. allegedly asked if Kasich would have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history. Although Donald Jr. denied it, the report was he said Kasich, as vice president, would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy. As president, the story went, Trump would be in charge of talking about how he was making America great again.

It’s worth recalling those incidents given that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has taken over direction of Trump’s transition team that will select cabinet and other top administration officials along with the White House staff. Is this his first step towards becoming CEO of Trump USA?

Of course Pence is an evangelical social conservative with extreme views against abortion, gay rights, and criminal justice reform, some that are even contrary to his boss, the President-elect.

I’ll leave speculation to others on who will hold what office and focus instead on whether, recognizing Madison’s concern noted above, the new Republican-run Congress – at least when it comes to national security and foreign policy – will play the relatively independent role as contemplated for the legislative branch by the Constitution, or whether the legislators, out of fear for their own futures, will slavishly follow directions from a Trump White House.

Certainly Republican House and Senate leaders the past few years have performed in partisan lockstep, refusing to compromise with President Barack Obama and thus making it difficult to pass legislative initiatives on issues, such as immigration reform, or even approve budgets.

Another budget crisis could loom in the current lame duck session, where a vote is needed before Dec. 9 to continue funding the federal government into next year. Probably another short term continuing resolution will allow the government to limp along until May, time enough to allow the Trump administration to give an indication next spring of what its initial fiscal priorities will be.

The $11.6 billion fiscal 2017 supplemental budget request sent by President Obama to Congress last Thursday to pay for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), primarily in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, may give an earlier view of the Trump approach. About 20 percent is to fund the 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan, a larger number than the Obama administration expected to keep there when it submitted its original fiscal 2017 budget.

One half of the overall amount, $5.8 billion, is for operations to be undertaken by the Pentagon through next September. The other $5.8 billion is for State Department and Agency for International Development activities over the same time period. This illustrates the type of budget decision the Trump administration immediately faces to meet the almost immediate needs of fighting wars on several fronts.

Many of the activities the Obama administration seeks funding for in the supplemental seem to contrast with activities Trump said he would support while campaigning.

For example, $2.9 billion of Pentagon funds would go to pay for operation and maintenance of Army units, including Reserve and National Guard, not only fighting overseas but also preparing to go there. Trump has questioned continued presence of American forces over the long term in combat areas and frequently said the countries involved or those in the area – such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States—ought to be paying us for what amounts to their defense.

Another, example $2.5 billion being sought for the State Department is “to support activities to further stabilize the regions and countries affected by ISIL [the Islamic State] or other violent extremists,” according to the material sent to Congress. Of that amount, $1 billion would support “a Relief and Recovery Fund that would provide flexible funding to support a range of additional needs in areas liberated from ISIL control as the counter-ISIL campaign progresses.”

Put in plain English, that is to provide what is considered “nation building activities” so that these areas can meet the needs of their citizens for security and basic government services in order to try to prevent the return of Islamic extremists.

Trump has repeatedly said he wants to quickly destroy the Islamic State, but he does not want to get involved in nation building.

But in this area of U.S. national security affairs and foreign policy, Congress at present has the background and expertise to make better decisions, rather than Trump, if they decide to exercise their own judgments. I am talking about the Republican chairmen and ranking Democrats of the relevant committees; Senate and House Armed Services, Senate and House Foreign Affairs, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

It’s a strong bench that includes the Armed Services Committees’ Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI) and Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA); Foreign Affairs Committees’ Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel and Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ben Cardin (D-MD); and the Intelligence Committees’ Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Measure them up against Trump’s well publicized campaign claim that he knew more about the Islamic State than the current DoD generals and the handful of retired generals he has as advisers.

When it comes to dealing with the Pentagon budget, the Iran nuclear deal, fighting Islamic terrorists, cyber warfare, China, NATO, and Russia, I’d put more faith in congressional leadership than the incoming President and those immediately around him.

In 1969 and 1970, I ran a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee investigation that dealt, in part, with the the ongoing Vietnam War that was tearing the country apart. Richard Nixon was president and Democrats controlled Congress. Not all Republicans supported the war or the way the administration was handling it, and not all Democrats were against the war or the approach Nixon was taking.

Foreign Relations Chairman J.W. Fulbright (D-AR) had begun to oppose the war, but our investigating subcommittee was bipartisan, with two Democrats and two Republicans, and all decisions were unanimous. Most important was that when the committee requested witnesses or documents from the Nixon White House, members supported those requests as Senators, not as pro-war or anti-war, or as Republicans or Democrats. They acted as members of an equal branch of government as the Constitution had established.

That idea of Congress as a separate and equal branch of government has been lost in the past two decades with the rise of partisan politics. Votes were judged only by parties winning – rather than compromising – on key issues, so governing became difficult. Democracies do not survive that way.

That’s the test Congress and the incoming Trump administration now face. In truth, we all must face it. Like it or not, it is time for enough Americans to come together so that we can make the three branches of the federal government work again as the Founding Fathers designed it. 

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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