“As important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration.” -President Woodrow Wilson on the duties of Congress
John O. Sullivan
I read a headline this morning that concerned me a great deal. It concerned me more than the so-called “Muslim Ban” (The State Department stopped issuing visas to Iraqi refugees for a 6-month period under President Obama in order to review security measures, Jimmy Carter executed a similar maneuver as part of sanctions against Iran). It concerned me MUCH more than Sean Spicer saying that State Department Employees could “get with the program or they can go” (State Department employees do after all, answer to the President and it is important that our nation’s diplomats put forward a united front). It even bothered me more than President Trump firing acting Attorney General and American Hero Sally Q. Yates for refusing to defend the travel ban.
The offending headline was this: “Rubio: State asked not to talk travel ban with Congress”
To me, this is completely out of line from Trump. It is more outrageous than any of the major headlines clogging up airwaves and social media feeds so far this week. Congressional oversight of the executive is incredibly important. It is one of the key features of the Checks and Balances upon which our Democracy is built. It is one of the few things that keeps the President and the rest of the Executive branch from acting with wanton impunity. Congress’ power of oversight has always been considered an implied power within the Constitution. Even without that implied status, the Supreme Court ruled definitively that “the power of inquiry — with process to enforce it — is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function” in its decision in McGrain v. Daugherty
Congress has traditionally executed this oversight power through its committee system, with congressional committees assigned defined areas of legislative prerogative and departments of the executive to oversee (The Senate Committee on Agriculture oversees the Department of Agriculture. It’s a pretty self explanatory system). Senator Marco Rubio is, as some might know, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which oversees, among other things, the U.S. State Department. So important is communication between Congress and the State Department that the State Department has an entire office dedicated to Congressional Affairs, as do most executive departments. The mission of this office is: “facilitating effective communication and interaction between the Assistant Secretary and the staff of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the Congress, foreign and domestic media, and the general public.”
For Senator Rubio to want to discuss the implications of the travel ban is not only allowed, it is appropriate and even necessary. For President Trump to muzzle the State Department’s private communications with Congress is beyond autocratic. Shutting down an agency’s Twitter account is one thing, not unlike a parent grounding a petulant child. But to cut off the flow of information from the Executive to the Legislature smacks of overreach. Without factual, first hand information on the effects of the travel ban from the executive agencies enforcing the ban, Congress can not act in an intelligent or informed manner. The different branches of government should be allowed, even encouraged to communicate openly. Congress shouldn’t have to hold a formal inquiry and put people under oath any time they need an answer to a small question. Trump’s actions to limit Congress’ access to information is downright undemocratic, and it’s wrong. It is among the most objectionable things he’s done since taking office, and hardly anyone is reporting it.