When the founders of our great nation designed the American political system, they saw a separation of governing powers as a fundamental cog in the machine of democracy. A president, serving as commander in chief, would be essential in administering and executing the law. However, in Federalist 51, Madison magnificently argued that the legislative branch must be the strongest because of its proximity to the American people. The Constitution was ratified shortly thereafter, and Congress’s legislative authority was enshrined in Article I.
It was no accident that the legislative branch was empowered in the very first article, even before the executive or judicial branches. The founders of our nation had just won the fight for their independence from a tyrant across the sea; they were eager to establish a structure that would preserve freedom and liberty, with leaders closest to the people in the driver’s seat of democracy.
In subsequent years, the role of the presidency has expanded far beyond what the founders intended and what we, the legislative branch, should be willing to accept. Expressing frustration with the inconvenience of Congress, Presidents have used executive power to circumvent the legislative process. President Obama averaged 34.6 executive orders per year and President Trump has averaged 45.5 per year thus far. While this is minimal compared to Presidents like FDR, who averaged 307.8 executive orders per year and Herbert Hoover who averaged 242, this is not what the founders envisioned.
Last month, President Trump declared a national emergency on our southern border. Not surprisingly, this elicited an outcry from many in Congress. A vote was taken up in the House to declare the end of the emergency order, but I voted against it because it was a largely partisan bill that dealt only with this one-time instance rather than a serious attempt to permanently rein in executive authority. I have serious concerns about the precedent this declaration establishes but even more serious concerns about our continued reliance on executive authority to legislate when the legislative branch falls short.
Congress must find more opportunities to work together to address critical problems, but to do that effectively, we must reassume the authority the Constitution granted us.
I joined with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce the Guarding Congressional Authority Act, a critical step in reestablishing Congress’s Article I authority. Under current law, national emergency declarations require veto-proof majorities to disapprove and overturn. This legislation will subject future emergency declarations to the same 60-day approval process as declarations of war under the War Powers Act. If a declaration is not approved by Congress within 60 days, they are overturned. While I would prefer to see Congress take the lead—diffusing the need for executive action in the first place — if Congress can agree that a situation is, in fact, an emergency, we should either come together to approve within 60 days or provide a legislative solution of our own.
I’ve expressed similar concerns with executive authority as it relates to trade. While foreign policy has traditionally been the purview of the President, the Commerce Clause expressly empowers Congress with the authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” However, under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, Congress delegated some authority to the Executive to regulate trade through unilateral tariffs if they can provide a national security justification, no matter how tenuous that justification may be. I helped introduce the Bicameral Trade Authority Act to return authority to Congress by requiring congressional approval within 60 days for any proposed tariff to remain in place.
I’m honored to serve the people of Utah’s third district. They did not send me to Washington to be a rubber stamp, nor to simply be a thorn in any President’s side. Although I don’t always agree with our President, I have tried to work with him when possible for the good of my constituents and I commit to continue doing so in the future. I’m honored to join a wide range of Republicans and Democrats in these efforts to restore congressional authority, and I hope it will lead to a new chapter of good governance that our founders can be proud of.
Rep. John Curtis represents Utah’s Third District in Congress.