America quietly celebrated its 229th anniversary as a constitutional republic this past weekend.
Living under a constitution — our Constitution — is very much taken for granted now, so much so that there’s nary a notice of its milestones any more. We ought to ring bells or something to mark the day. Maybe put out flags. In an ideal world, school children would be read the document’s 7,591 words every March 4 (that includes the 27 amendments) starting in kindergarten. They’d groan and roll their eyes, but some of it would get through. We grown ups should read it once a year, too. It only takes an hour.
The U.S. Constitution is our rule book; our user’s manual, if you will. Anyone who’s ever played Hopscotch or Scrabble understands its absolute need. In the passion of a moment — “‘Nyostringic’ is so a word!” — mortal men and women will shade, twist, convolute or outright break every rule in the book to get their individual way. Without the book there is chaos.
Political parties can’t be counted on to safeguard the Constitution either. Whichever is in power will challenge it for its own advantage. The Clinton Justice Department was swatted down by the Supreme Court 23 times, unanimously, for trying to subvert the Constitution; the Bush 43 Justice Department 15 times. The Obama administration lost 10 Supreme Court cases in 2016 alone.
The party out of power is equally predictable. It hugs the Constitution and howls until its put back in charge. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s rare, though, that Constitutional authority is violated so clearly as it’s being now by President Donald Trump, who announced tariffs on imported aluminum and steel virtually on the eve of the Constitution’s birthday. Check it. It’s in the rule book, right there in black and white — Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3: “The Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations . . .”
In other words, presidents can’t impose tariffs; only Congress can do that.
You can’t blame Trump for trying. Congress has gotten lax in recent years in observing what’s supposed to be a fixed rule. He knows there’s a good chance he’ll get away with this. Give the president credit, too, for attempting to deliver on a clear campaign promise. But even he acknowledged the unconstitutionality of his twictate (twitter dictate) in fatuously invoking national security concerns as the reason for the tariffs. America has plenty of capacity to build more M-1 Abrams tanks.
That leaves House Speaker Paul Ryan and his ostensibly free-trade Republican Congress with a big decision to make. Do they enforce the Constitution’s commerce clause and risk the ire of Trump and his loyalists months before the 2018 midterm elections, or do they acquiesce to the president’s tariffs and risk damaging the U.S. economy? Do they stand for what they believe or fold before an extraordinarily willful president?
It shouldn’t be a close call; look at the user’s manual. No matter how many times my father tries to sneak “Nyostringic” into the vernacular, it’s not really a word. And no matter how much this president, or any other president, wants to impose tariffs, he can’t without Congress’s approval.
It’s against the law. Our law. Both parties need to follow it. Ryan would do himself credit by reminding us of that.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.