“Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple. Until the American people are convinced that we will stop future flows of illegal immigration, we will make no progress on dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants who are here now, and on rationalizing our system of legal immigration. That’s plain and simple and unavoidable.”
Those words were not spoken by President Donald Trump or any Republican. They’re from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in 2009 — and he was right.
Since then, our government has failed to secure the border. Large numbers of individuals, including some who are violent criminals, cross the southern border illegally. On the dangerous journey to the U.S., many migrant women and children are exploited by human traffickers. And deadly illicit drugs, like fentanyl, are smuggled over the border through and between ports of entry, coming into our towns and ruining lives.
For these reasons, President Trump has sensibly made securing the southern border a central goal of his presidency. Last year, I voted for $25 billion in border security funding because I support him in these efforts to keep Americans safe, including his recent request for $5.7 billion to build 234 miles of physical barriers at the 10 most critical locations as determined by the border patrol.
Unfortunately, when the president’s request came before Congress, Sen. Schumer and his Democratic colleagues changed their position on border security. After having voted for up to $24 billion in funding for physical barriers in 2018, this year, Democrats agreed to fund only a small fraction of the amount needed to build physical barriers.
The president’s most recent predecessors — two Republicans and two Democrats — built physical barriers at the border. None faced the obstruction that President Trump has. This unreasonable opposition led the president to declare a national emergency that reallocates funds from future military construction projects toward construction of physical barriers.
The president has, under existing law, adequate discretion over funding sources that would enable him to secure $5.7 billion without having to invoke emergency powers. Nevertheless, the president decided to declare a national emergency, which gives him virtually unlimited access to funds that Congress specifically dedicated for military construction projects.
I share the president’s frustration and goal of securing the border, but I have serious concerns about his national emergency declaration. Well before the president declared an emergency, I made clear that such a declaration was ill-advised.
While past presidents have, on rare occasions, used national emergency declarations to reallocate federal funds, never has one been used to circumvent duly enacted legislation after Congress refused a president’s funding request.
Our Constitution specifically gives Congress, not the president, the power to authorize federal spending. Congress’ “power of the purse” limits the executive branch from spending the people’s money without the consent of their representatives. This feature reflects a key pillar of our constitutional government: Responsibilities are to be separated between the different branches of government so as to prevent any single branch from centralizing power.
Were the president to successfully circumvent Congress using an emergency declaration, not only would our Constitution’s separation of powers be weakened, but a dangerous precedent would be set. Future presidents, frustrated by Congress, could declare national emergencies to unilaterally advance whatever controversial policy they might favor. It’s easy to envision a Democratic president declaring a national emergency on climate change to impose the very harmful provisions of the so-called Green New Deal. This isn’t just idle fear-mongering. Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would declare a national emergency on climate change.
Regardless of the party in the White House, it is unacceptable for presidents to do what the Constitution only gives Congress the responsibility to do. I repeatedly criticized President Obama when he did this by unilaterally rewriting Obamacare, making unconstitutional executive appointments and granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
It was wrong when President Obama did it and it is wrong for President Trump to do so now. It would be wrong for a future president to do it, too, which is why Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and I are supporting reforms to the National Emergencies Act that protect the separation of powers. There’s no reason why Democrats, who have said they oppose President Trump’s emergency declaration on constitutional grounds, shouldn’t join us.
I’ve worked with President Trump when I think he’s right and will continue to do so. Together we have gotten many important things accomplished, like reducing taxes and regulations to grow our economy. But I promised Pennsylvanians I would never be a rubber stamp for any president, even one in my own party. While I agree that the situation on the southern border is terrible, I will not support unilateral action by this president or any other president when it undermines fundamental constitutional principles. That is why I joined a bipartisan majority of Senators in voting to terminate the president’s emergency declaration.
Pat Toomey has represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate since 2011.