Dusty picks principle over party

Congressman Dusty Johnson was in office for less than two months when he made his mark, standing for principal over party.

Johnson was one of 13 Republicans who joined with Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday to vote to pass a resolution opposing President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. Trump, unable to obtain congressional support for the $5.7 billion he wants to erect border barriers between the U.S. and Mexico, declared an emergency on Feb. 15 and planned to take $3.6 billion set aside for military construction for the wall.

I admit to remaining puzzled how the border wall suddenly became an emergency. During his 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to make Mexico pay for it. Then, during his first two years in office, he had Republican majorities in both the House and

the Senate.

After being unable to force through a bill giving him the money he wanted, and rejecting a compromise late last year, Trump changed course after Democrats won control of the House in November. Suddenly, this was a crisis and he demanded emergency authority.

A politically and economically damaging partial government shutdown only added to the president’s woes. So he declared an emergency and said he would ignore Congress, which has the constitutional power of the purse, and simply seize the money he wanted. The House rejected that idea, and Johnson came down on the right side, in my view.

Not everyone agrees, and social media was filled with comments from Republicans vowing never to vote for Johnson again and to make him a one-term congressman, while Democrats and independents seemed surprised and praised him. It allows him to stake out the middle, always a good spot for a politician.

“Is your oath of office to Donald Trump or is it to the Constitution of the United States?” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked in a speech before the votes were counted. “You cannot let him undermine your pledge to the Constitution.”

Being on the same side as Pelosi, who has been routinely assailed by South Dakota Republicans for years, was a surprising move for Johnson. But he ran as a moderate who would vote according to his conscience. This shows he meant it.

In a statement explaining his vote, Johnson noted he has backed Trump on border security and supports the wall the president wants. But this was a step too far for the freshman from South Dakota, he said.

“An emergency declaration is the wrong approach, however, ” Johnson said. ”I spent eight years under President Obama fighting ever-expanding executive authority. I remain committed to that principle.”

I’m not sure what he meant by that since he was Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff in Obama’s first term and a Mitchell businessman during much of the second term. Maybe he battled Obama during debates over lunch with his co-workers.

But Johnson is right that to allow Trump to seize spending authority from Congress would be a dangerous move.

“Separation of powers is a central American value, brilliantly established by our Founders,” he said. ”It makes governing messy and frustrating, but concentrations of power threaten liberty. This is true, regardless of which party holds the White House. In the future we may have a president who supports a Green New Deal or radical attempts to roll back the rights of gun owners. If that’s the case, we’ll need the checks and balances inherent in our system to be alive and well.”

The House resolution passed easily, 245-182, so it would have been easy for Johnson to go along with most Republicans. His vote was not the deciding factor, but it did reveal his belief in the value of adhering to the Constitution.

Now the measure goes to the Senate, which appears evenly divided, as three Republicans have said they will join with Democrats to oppose Trump’s grab for emergency authority. South Dakota Sens. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican, and Mike Rounds could send a clear message if they voted with Democrats. The Senate has 18 days to act on this resolution.

There is little reason to think they will, and even if they do, Trump would almost assuredly cast his first veto to squelch the resolution. Thune and Rounds, veteran politicians, know that as well, and that will likely factor in their decisions.

But perhaps they could take a lesson from a freshman who was guided by principle, not politics. What a concept in American politics today!

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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