The U.S. Constitution (National Constitution Center photo)
By Madeleine Dean
Amidst the relentless and deafening noise of our current political moment, I often remind myself: We will get through this.
Right now, House Democrats are conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s actions. By any measure, those actions are extraordinarily disturbing. President Trump withheld crucial, Congressionally-appropriated military aid to Ukraine – a democratic ally under siege from Russia – in exchange for a promise from Ukraine’s president to investigate our President’s domestic political rival.
President Trump’s corruption and self-dealing are breathtaking; his willingness to risk the lives of allied soldiers is heartbreaking; and his eagerness to undermine American elections for his own gain is unprecedented.
Yet the president does not seem to see anything wrong with his behavior – repeatedly insisting that his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was “perfect.” More broadly, he has refused to participate with all Constitutionally-mandated Congressional oversight, arguing that because of “Article II…I have to the right to do whatever I want as President.”
Our Constitution says no such thing. In fact, our founding document makes clear that the executive is just one branch among three – and that its powers are limited.
The Founders also recognized that in order to enforce these limits, our Constitution required an impeachment provision – which they placed in Article II. Without such protections, one Founder, William Davie of North Carolina, warned that a President might “spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”
Today, we face precisely the situation the Founders most feared – and unfortunately, some leaders seem to think that our Constitution cannot take the strain. They argue that Congress ought to excuse the President’s behavior – and that standing up for the Constitution and the rule of law will create more conflict than our country can handle.
Yet this overlooks the abiding strength of our system – of the Constitution and the legal framework that have sustained us since the Founding. We are, first and foremost, a nation of laws – where, as Gouverneur Morris said, “The magistrate is not the king. The people are the king.”
The question, then, is whether we really believe in our Constitution – and whether we think it is up to the task of restraining a would-be king.
I believe that it is – yet I recognize that our system does not run on its own power. Instead, it requires the active participation of each new generation of Americans – citizens who value our legacy and are committed to defending it. And that is why we need to hold the President accountable.
While we depend on our Constitution, it depends on us as well.
This year, I had the chance to serve with Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., One day in late July, I sat next to Mr. Cummings during votes. We talked quietly as he looked around the House with reverence and a sense of mystery.
He talked about the fluid nature of the place, the impermanence and the continuum— and about how we must make the most of our time here.
Rep. Cummings passed away a few months later – and left a profound legacy. It was clear to everyone who knew him: his humility and courage were rooted in an awareness of his own brief opportunity to contribute, to make things better, to help us live up to our founding ideals.
As he so movingly put it, “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”
In the weeks and months ahead, Congress can answer that question. We can look past the pressures of the moment and consider the broader horizon. And we can recall that America’s democratic experiment is based on a simple conviction: public office is a means of serving others, not a license for corruption, self-dealing, and lawlessness.
If we act on those convictions, we will fulfill a generational duty – and I am confident we will get through this.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat, represents the Montgomery County-based 4th Congressional District. She is a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, which is pursuing the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. She writes from Washington D.C.
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