In the larger scheme of things, Donald Trump’s military parade is dwarfed by the implications of the Mueller investigation, the deep corruption in the Trump family and cabinet, the failures in policy from Puerto Rico to pollution, the threat of a trade war and the dangers of a shooting war with Iran or North Korea.
But the story behind the ill-fated and outrageous demand for a parade is itself important—as a damning case study in the unwillingness of a Republican Congress to lift the slightest finger to provide a check and balance against a presidency showing deep signs of corruption, autocracy and inept governance.
Trump’s parade did become an issue when Pentagon officials pegged its cost at $92 million–more than three times an early $30 million estimate and a whopping 767 percent higher than the original $12 million price tag. About $50 million was to come from the Pentagon with another $42 million from interagency partners like Homeland Security. In response to those reports, Trump quickly cancelled his parade.
But the fact that the parade has now been cancelled doesn’t mean that the politically sordid process by which this boondoggle almost happened shouldn’t be considered.
The one question that is especially important: Where was Congress?
You remember Congress, the branch of the federal government that, according to the U.S. Constitution, has the power of the purse, must pass the laws that appropriate taxpayer dollars and has the responsibility to oversee how the president actually spends those dollars as the appropriations laws require?
That Congress was completely AWOL during the whole Trump military parade caper.
This was the GOP Congress’s “see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil” approach to oversight.
Congress’s failure to deal properly with Trump’s parade included every one of its Constitution-given federal spending responsibilities and its role in checking the executive branch and its head.
First, neither the House nor Senate even considered let alone passed an appropriation for the parade. No hearings were held, no witnesses were questioned and no formal or informal cost estimates were reviewed. There were no formal questions about the costs, who would pay or where the money would come from, not to mention even basic objections about the value of doing it in the first place.
By not holding hearings, asking questions or raising concerns, Congress was implicitly approving of both the idea of the parade and having the Pentagon and other departments spend literally unlimited taxpayer dollars to make it happen. And beyond the costs, the idea of a president demanding the kind of parade normally employed by dictators was yet another sign, however petty, of a president who identifies more with the autocrats than democrats on the world stage.
Congress was completely AWOL during the whole Trump military parade caper.
On the money front, no appropriation meant that all of the departments and agencies involved would have to take money from their other accounts to pay for Trump’s parade. Congress absolutely should have requested information about which existing programs would be short-changed to do this.
To be fair, every federal department and agency has limited authority to repurpose its appropriations without getting Congress to vote on those changes. But that has typically involved the appropriations committees being notified and the departments getting at least informal approval for what was being planned. Here again, Congress appears to have completely forsaken its responsibilities and the agencies involved, notably Defense and Homeland Security, would have to take funds from critical national security programs.
Everything about the parade was farcical—the lack of planning and coordination, the sources of funding, the nature of the parade, the timing, the clear antipathy towards it among key figures in the Pentagon and the sinister implications of a North Korea-style tribute to Dear Leader.
Those are all questions that should have been asked when Trump first demanded the parade and while the planning for it was still in its early stages. If Congress didn’t get satisfactory answers so that it could protect taxpayers and democracy, it should have insisted the parade be cancelled until there were facts rather than guesses.
All of this means that, for a frivolous exercise involving tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money taken from vital functions, the Republican Congress demonstrated its new standard of oversight: the “see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil” approach.
To be sure, there are bigger outrages and boondoggles, waste of money and crony dealing than the parade Trump wanted. But this example underscores a larger brutal reality: The checks and balances the Framers expected by giving Congress the power of the purse and the power of oversight today is absent for an administration that requires it more rather than less.
As more facts emerge on Trump’s direct involvement in campaign finance misconduct and the ties between his campaign and Russia, and as malpractice and malfeasance in governance is on the rise, this fact is among the most troubling.
* Norman Ornstein (@normornstein) is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported.