Once again, President Donald Trump has me wondering whether Republicans are still the party of federalism and small government, or whether they just think that the powers reserved for states vary depending on whether they vote red or blue.
Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday that included federal agencies even more closely on local public safety as officials elected there failed to do enough to stop the sometimes violent and destructive protests against police brutality. Targeting four specific cities – Seattle, New York City and Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon – for potentially cutting federal funding for these reasons, he wrote, “My government will not allow federal tax dollars to fund cities that are deteriorating into lawless zones. "
Please point out which part of the Constitution or federal law gives the President the power to channel the enormous amount that goes into cities on whether they treat their crime problems the way the President wishes.
And these four cities could just be the beginning. The order also requires the Attorney General to compile a list within two weeks, which is then updated every six months. “A list of state and local jurisdictions that have allowed the persistence of violence and property destruction and have refused to take reasonable action to combat these crimes activities (anarchist jurisdictions). "In the meantime, the head of the White House Administration and Budget Office should tell federal agencies how these cities can be excluded or" disadvantaged "from granting" to the extent permitted by law. "
Insert the sound of screeching brakes here. Can you imagine Congress setting up a fellowship program for community development, housing, or other local needs, and giving the executive the discretion to lock down cities ravaged by "anarchists"? If anything, you'd think Congress would set criteria that favor, not punish, cities with crime problems.
However, don't expect this government to take a conservative stance on what the law allows a president. This is, after all, the same group that tried to cut off grants to community-based police services for cities and states that did not want to do the jobs best left to immigration and customs officials. The efforts were quickly blocked by a federal judge; Meanwhile, three appeals courts have ruled that the administration was not empowered to cut the grants, while an appeals court came to the opposite conclusion.
In this case, at least, there is a link between the behavior Trump was aiming at and the purpose of the grants. But Trump's order covers all of the money the federal government sends to cities well beyond the realm of law enforcement.
What is particularly appalling here is the fact that Wednesday's order is not fixed. For example, to decide what makes a city an "anarchist jurisdiction", the attorney general should examine whether it is restricting local police tactics, curtailing police budgets or powers, "inappropriately" refusing an influx of federal law enforcement officers accept, and "Any other factor the Attorney General deems appropriate."
How does the constitution and federal law view the attorney general's decision on how a city manages its police force? The Supreme Court made it clear in the 2012 Obamacare ruling that Washington’s power to force state and local governments to follow their political leadership is limited. If President Barack Obama instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to decide which cities have "appropriate" law enforcement tactics and therefore should be eligible for Community Development Block Grants, how many Republicans in Congress would have screamed bloody murder?
Alan Berube, a metropolitan policy expert at the Brookings Institute, said that Congress usually sets out in "excruciating detail" who is eligible for grants, how much money they can get, and what the money can be used for. And when those details aren't required by law, they're included in regulations that federal agencies put in place to govern grant programs. Although these rules leave the agencies with varying degrees of discretion, Berube said, "In my opinion, none of them would allow the executive to withhold funding for the reasons set out in this executive order."
His conclusion? "It is a political act, not an act of governance."
To be clear, there's little to defend about how mayors in Portland, Minneapolis, and other riot-stricken cities across the country have dealt with the circumstances they have faced. There are many failures of local leadership and the consequences for many residents of these cities have been devastating.
This is yet another example of how poorly the President "I can fix it" accepts the limits of the President's power. And it's hypocritical, too – Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, stated that the Justice Department has lost interest in overseeing the local police force and sheriff's departments. The meetings withdrew from the established role of the Justice Department in response to police officers and MPs who abused civil rights. Trump is now claiming a new role for the Justice Department in determining whether cops and MPs are being kept on too tight a leash.
Yes, Republicans have long called themselves the party for law and order, and not always in a noble way. But the GOP should also be the party that speaks out against overreach of the federal government. And what Trump did on Wednesday is clearly overreach.
Jon Healey is the assistant editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times.