Commentary: Chris Stewart is the master of doublespeak

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, makes his opening remarks during his town hall meeting at the West Valley City Hall in West Valley City Wednesday May 2, 2018.

At his Feb. 21 Salt Lake town hall meeting, Rep. Chris Stewart articulated what he described as his clear and consistent position on the president’s emergency declaration. The president, he said, had overreached by making an end-run around the legislative branch and issuing an emergency order to build his border wall. Stewart worried that this tactic could be used by both parties and could, in the future, disadvantage his own party.

When a constituent asked whether he would support the joint resolution rescinding the president’s order, Stewart said that he would, with one important qualification. He would vote “yes” only if the resolution was “clean” and did not contain extraneous language that would take him outside his comfort zone.

Fair enough, I thought. This is politics, after all. But good for Chris Stewart. He’s putting country before party.

Five days later, Joint House Resolution 46 came up for a vote. The text in its entirety reads: “Pursuant to section 202 of the National Emergencies Act, the national emergency declared by the finding of the President on February 15, 2019, in Proclamation 9844 is hereby terminated.”

Stewart voted “no.”

Could the language have been any cleaner? The Deseret News reported that the congressman “disagrees with the principle of what Trump is doing but can’t support the resolution because he disagrees with the wording.” Instead, he “wants long-term solutions.”

Stewart urges us to ignore the immediate constitutional crisis created by the president’s end-run around Congress. Instead, he asks for bipartisan legislation to rein in future executive power abuses. Long-term solutions are great, but not at the expense of a crisis staring us in the face.

Stewart elaborated to Utah Policy, stating “[The resolution] says there’s no emergency on the border, and I disagree. It says the president doesn’t have the authority. He does have the authority. I just wish he didn’t have the authority to do this.”

The resolution simply states that the emergency as declared in president’s order is terminated. It says nothing about the border or the purported reasons for the emergency. And whether there’s an actual emergency at the border is not the issue. The constitutionality of the president’s order is the issue.

Stewart could believe there is a border crisis and still vote for the resolution. Doing so would communicate to the president, in no uncertain terms, right now, that the legislature will not accept executive overreach. Stewart’s long-term solution, appropriate bipartisan legislation addressing executive overreach, could follow.

Let’s keep our priorities straight. The crux of the problem that prompted the resolution in the first place was the president’s use of executive power to circumvent another branch of government. The Constitution gives the legislative branch control of the purse strings. But here, the president intentionally circumvented the legislature expressly because it denied him funding for a specific project.

With his emergency declaration, the president ran afoul of the constitutional provision that establishes three separate co-equal branches of government. The specific circumstance of the president’s action is a first for our country and the reason so many people are concerned about a constitutional crisis.

Stewart does get credit for looking askance at the president’s use of his power. But his vote against the resolution is misguided. It’s like his house is on fire, but instead of calling the fire department, he’s arguing about the cause of the fire.

To make matters worse, Stewart told CNN that he couldn’t support the resolution because it was “too tightly written.” First he says he wants a “clean” resolution with no extra language. Then he says the language is “too tight” and must be broader to earn his vote. Which is it?

I’m not the only one who’s confused. A CNN interviewer had to ask Stewart three times what his position on the resolution was because she thought he was supporting it when, if fact, he opposed it. With some incredulity, she hesitatingly tried to untangle his position: “So, the way this is written, you are going to vote to support the president’s national emergency because you believe there’s an emergency on the border, so though you don’t like that the president has declared a national emergency, you are going to support the national emergency.

Stewart has tied himself in knots of doublespeak. He wants to maintain the high ground of acknowledging that the president has overreached his authority while at the same time voting in lockstep with the president and his party. But he can’t have it both ways. His desperately convoluted attempt to do so does a disservice to himself, his constituents and our country.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Joanne Slotnik at a meeting of Salt Lake Indivisible, a grass-roots bipartisan group organizing against President Donald Trump. The meeting was held at Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, Wednesday February 1, 2017.

Joanne Slotnik is a frustrated resident of the 2nd Congressional District, a retired attorney and the co-founder of Salt Lake Indivisible.