Elected officials hold power on behalf of the people. Exerted within the bounds of institutional checks and balances, this push and pull keeps government in check and protects rights.
Yet recently Sen. Susan Collins devalued her impact and President Donald Trump inflated his prerogatives. Both portraits of power were false and harmful to basic precepts of our political system.
Collins’ self-disempowering rhetoric began by claiming ignorance about legal maneuvering around abortion that seems obvious.
Recently, multiple states aggressively restricted women’s rights to choose in order to put this issue before the Supreme Court.
Their motive was no secret. In fact, the chief sponsor of the Alabama bill, which makes abortion illegal even in the cases of rape and incest, proclaimed, “This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade.”
Yet Collins professed ignorance, saying, “I’m not sure exactly why we’re seeing this happen.”
When our the highest court hears new abortion-related cases, it’s most likely to take one of three steps.
The Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade, enabling states to ban or limit abortion any way they want.
Or the court could redefine personhood as starting before birth, perhaps quite early in a pregnancy, or allow states to do so. As law professor Carliss Chatman notes, such a step would have a huge range of consequences for citizenship, due process, child support, taxation and more. If adopted as a national standard, no states could let women decide whether to go through a pregnancy and give birth, or not.
Or perhaps the Supreme Court will chip away at reproductive rights, allowing states to put more limits on abortion.
The most extreme anti-choice states have the highest infant mortality rates, belying their claims to be “pro-life.”
More extreme steps could follow. Under Missouri, Georgia and Alabama laws, doctors who perform abortions would be vulnerable to criminal charges and jail. Some anti-choice advocates think this isn’t harsh enough and argue that women who have abortions should be prosecuted.
All of these outcomes are possible because Collins voted for numerous anti-choice judges. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who she supported, replaced the swing vote on abortion, Justice Kennedy, on the Supreme Court. Within the last few weeks, Collins voted for three anti-choice federal judges and against one.
In devaluing her own power, Collins weakened a key principle of popular control — accountability. Maine people cast votes for Collins believing she would champion women’s right to choose but her legacy is contributing to undermining reproductive rights.
Collins had power and didn’t use it to protect abortion rights.
In contrast, Trump’s pseudo powers involve claiming powers he doesn’t have.
The Trump administration has refused to produce documents and witnesses to Congress, limiting its legislative powers to conduct oversight and to legislate. Trump told former White House Counsel Don McGahn not to appear for congressional questioning. According to the redacted Mueller report, McGahn told investigators that Trump tried to have McGahn fire Mueller and to lie about it by creating false notes and lying to the press.
This is wholly unacceptable. As a federal judge recently ruled, “It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present—even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”
In arguing for ratifying the Constitution, James Madison wrote of checks and balances, “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
Trump flouts constitutional controls and the rule of law. He and Attorney General William Barr claim executive powers far outside the normal parameters of American history.
On the other end of the spectrum, Collins, a smart, experienced senator, presents herself as not seeing what those passing laws severely limiting women’s bodily autonomy and those who oppose these laws both acknowledge.
Today we need to reject both overly strong and weak psuedo powers. Lawmakers need to stand up for their constituents and check our imperial president, and thus restore the proper balance of powers.