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Balance of Power

Trump takes crusade on the balance of power to the next level

Advocates of good government generally agree that when the three branches are in relative balance, American democracy has a better chance to thrive. President Trump is aggressively challenging that notion, and this week he's opened several new fronts in his campaign to bolster executive power at the expense of Congress:


  • He declared he does not want any current administration officials to testify on Capitol Hill about anything to do with special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
  • He also signaled he may put presidential lawyers to work to prevent former officials, especially former White House counsel Don McGahn, from appearing before any congressional committees. ("There is no reason to go any further, and especially in Congress where it's very partisan — obviously very partisan," Trump told The Washington Post on Tuesday.)
  • His Treasury Department flatly defied a deadline set by the House Ways and Means Committee for turning over six years of Trump's tax returns, which the panel seems entitled to see as a matter of law.
  • The Trump Organization sued House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings to block a subpoena that seeks several years of the president's financial documents.

What this amounts to, in every case, is the leader of the executive branch counting on the judicial branch to step in and prevent the legislative branch from conducting the oversight that's at the core of constitutional prerogatives.

"This completely comports with Trump's approach to business and life," was the analysis Axios was given by Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien, who described Trump as not even close to being a billionaire in a 2005 biography and won a subsequent lawsuit filed by his subject. "Roy Cohn taught him how to weaponize the legal system when he was still in his late 20s — nearly 50 years ago."

The president is clearly aided in this approach by the political realities of the moment.

He is combatting a power-split Congress, where virtually any assertions of power by the Democratic House will be ignored or even repudiated by Trump's fellow Republicans in the Senate.

And he is relying on winning his battles with the help of a federal court system he's already succeeded in pushing to the right, with a conservative Supreme Court majority and plenty of appeals court judges now inclined to back his views of executive power. (Tuesday's strong signals from the high court that it will defer to him on the census citizenship question is just the latest evidence of that.)

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U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue

Naturalized citizens living in Mississippi must prove their citizenship when they register to vote, unlike those born in the United States. Above, members of the military are sworn in as U.S. citizens at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Mississippi voting rules are biased against naturalized citizens, lawsuit alleges

The latest effort to ease restrictions on voting through litigation is a challenge to Mississippi's requirement that naturalized citizens show proof of their citizenship when they register.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, says the law is unconstitutional because it violates of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause by treating one category of citizens differently from another. People born in the United States need only check a box on the state's registration form attesting they are citizens.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped bring the suit, says Mississippi is the only state with a unique mandate for would-be voters who were not born American citizens.

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Congress
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Committee on the Modernization of Congress

"Members are clearly concerned for the future of Congress. These are not partisan or political concerns," writes Mark Strand.

Now that the House’s modernization panel is extended, it has a lot more work to do

Strand is president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to help members of Congress better serve their constituents and their constituents better understand Congress. He testified before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in March.

As the House of Representatives marches toward a partisan impeachment, the American public can be forgiven for missing a bright spot of productive bipartisanship: the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. After an encouraging year of bipartisan committee work, the House voted last week to extend the panel for a year.

This committee has made 29 unanimous recommendations to improve technology, transparency, accessibility and constituent engagement as well as provide better support for staff. Twenty-nine unanimous recommendations. And these aren't boiler plate measures like "The House should have more transparency." They are well thought-out solutions that can be taken up by committees of jurisdiction, such as allowing new members to hire a transition staffer, promoting civility during new-member orientation, streamlining bill writing and finalizing a system to easily track how amendments would alter legislation and impact current law.

The committee's members wanted to be part of this work. They understand how important it is for the House to catch up with modern times. There's still a lot of work to do, though, which is why it's great they will be able to continue through the end of 2020.

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