The Incredible Progressive Cognitive Dissonance on Executive Power

When President Biden ordered air assaults in Syria against Iranian-backed militias that had hit US soldiers and assets, progressives were up in arms (ironically), claiming Biden’s action to defend the United States and respond proportionally to an attack against US interests was an overreach of executive powers.

As the President noted in a letter to Congress, his action was consistent with both the War Powers Act and the self-defense rights of sovereign nations recognized by the United Nations. But leftists were outraged that despite having every legal power and every justification, Biden did not seek a specific authorization from Congress to launch military action, something they saw as the executive’s overreach into what should properly be Congress’s prerogative under its warmaking powers.

Rep. Ro Khanna slammed Biden, saying “We cannot stand up for Congressional authorization before military strikes only when there is a Republican President.” Sen. Bernie Sanders channeled his inner Susan Collins, lamenting that he was “very concerned” about “administrations of both parties” are guilty of interpreting executive powers “in an extremely expansive way.”

Anyone who hasn’t more closely observed the usual suspects in modern gatekeeper-progressive circles can be forgiven for thinking that progressives must really care about executive outreach! They can be excused for believing that the so-called progressives must prioritize safeguarding the prerogatives of Congress above all else and believe that the President must never interpret his legal powers, as Bernie Sanders would say, “in an expansive way.”

Luckily, some of us have observed the gatekeeper progressives from a closer distance, and we can spot a fake when we see it.

Within days of loudly bemoaning the President for being too trigger happy with his ‘expansive’ view of executive powers, the same cast of characters were beating up on the President for refusing to use unilateral and nonexistent executive powers to bulldoze the rules of the United States Senate. ‘Progressives,’ such as they are, demanded that the Biden White House order Vice President Harris to invent empress-like powers in her role as the President of the Senate to unilaterally scuttle rules that the Senate enacted for itself, as it is entitled to explicitly under the United States Constitution. They argued that Harris should ignore the rules of the Senate as laid out by the Parliamentarian, because doing so, they thought, would help pass a $15 minimum wage.

It wouldn’t, as it turned out. Bernie Sanders’ amendment to add a $15 minimum wage to the COVID stimulus bill barely mustered 40 votes in the Senate, exposing that the problem was Sanders’s utter failure to build consensus, not the administration’s refusal to usurp the rulemaking powers of a separate and coequal branch of government.

But I digress. The important point here is that the same so-called progressives who lost their minds over executive overreach from the President’s limited use of his commander-in-chief powers were suddenly happy to surrender one of the most fundamental rights of the legislative branch that makes them independent form coequal with the executive: the power to make the rules of their own chamber. Ro Khanna led a letter demanding the President unilaterally strip powers from his own branch of government less than a week after wagging internet-fingers at the President for being too frisky with executive powers.

Irony, it appears, is at least on life support, if not dead. Because the progressives’ about-face on executive power does not end there.

Largely the same band of bad musicians are also calling on President Biden to cancel $50,000 of federal student debt per borrower without going to Congress. While the President has asked the Department of Education to conduct a review of his executive powers on student debt, it is difficult to make the case for it, and claiming such authority, in any case, would certainly be interpreting executive powers in an “extremely expansive way.”

Back in February, I laid out the details on why this is likely a bridge to nowhere, and if you are interested in learning the intricacies, I recommend a full read. Here, however, is a quick summary:
  • Congress knows what loan means, and by using that word, it created an expectation to be paid back. Congress has control of the pursestrings, not the president.
  • Congress has allowed the DoE to modify and cancel loans, but under specific circumstances, not on a blanket basis.
  • Congress created both loans and grants for students, which indicates that it did not intend for the President to turn the loans into grants at his whim.
While it is far from clear that executive authority exists to blanket-forgive student debt, legislative authority, vested in Congress, certainly does. And yet the people in Congress - like Khanna and Sanders - who are pushing for this executive power grab are not bothering to push legislation through their own chambers of Congress to achieve the same end. One can either call this legislative laziness or question whether these members of Congress are really more interested in using student debt as a weapon against Biden than actually canceling student debt, but one cannot call this a zealous guarding of Congress’s prerogatives against executive overreach.

Once again, the point here is that even if unilateral, broad-based forgiveness of student loans without Congress were somehow possible, it will require a much bigger reach of executive power than the strike in Syria. And yet, the same group of people who were terribly upset at the president for using clearly delineated powers in US and international law in defending the country without getting a permission slip from Congress first are now insisting he claim extraordinary executive powers to arrest the power of the purse from Congress.

This is an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance. If anything, the President, under the US constitution, has a freer hand in foreign policy matters than in matters of domestic policy, and this progressive dissonance appears to work in the exact opposite direction.

‘Progressives’ must decide whether they are for more executive restraint and more Congressional legislating, or a freer executive acting on his own, unencumbered by Congressional red tape.

They can’t have it both ways.

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