The Congress has become such a pathetic remnant of what the founders of the American experiment intended it to be that it is perhaps not surprising that some commentators were taken aback when U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan got serious about checking and balancing the Trump administration and its appointed henchmen.
After someone at the State Department — presumably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — blocked testimony by a key witness to the president’s scheming to strong-arm the Ukrainian government into investigating Joe Biden, Pocan proposed to withhold the salary of the obstructionist.
European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a Trump campaign donor who was awarded an ambassadorship not because of his competence but because he wrote big checks, was supposed to provide testimony last week to the House Intelligence Committee. That testimony was blocked at the last minute, causing an outcry over obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Sondland may testify this week. But the prospect that Pompeo and the Trump cabal may continue their stonewalling is real. So Pocan is offering a real response.
The Wisconsin Democrat wrote to Pompeo last Tuesday, demanding details about the blocking of Sondland’s testimony. But Pocan’s was not a typical “strongly-worded letter.” It packed a punch. Referring to “section 713 of Division D of Public Law 116-6 signed by the President earlier this year,” the congressman explained that, “As you are aware, this section prohibits paying the salary of any ‘officer or employee of the Federal Government who prohibits or prevents… any other officer or employee of the Federal Government from… communication or contact with any Member, committee, or subcommittee of the Congress.’”
“I believe,” added Pocan, “(that) the person prohibiting Ambassador Sondland from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee is in violation of this statute, and that their salary should be withheld until Ambassador Sondland appears before Congress.”
As Pompeo is in charge of the State Department, and as he is notoriously “hands-on” when it comes to doing the president’s bidding, the salary in question is undoubtedly his. Yet, the congressman is not interested in personalities. He is interested in making two points.
First: “We refuse to bankroll this administration while they hold witnesses hostage,” said Pocan.
Second: The Congress needs to get more serious about utilizing “the power of the purse.” Along with the authority to declare (or block) wars and to impeach presidents, the authority of the Congress to authorize or refuse the spending of public dollars is an essential check and balance on the executive branch. James Madison referred to it as “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance…”
Pocan is asserting that power and his willingness to do so — along with this long overdue impeachment inquiry — suggests that Congress might finally be prepared to reclaim its authority as a co-equal branch of government.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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