The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has gotten the constitutional law exactly backwards. It said that the “faithful execution of the law” — the Impoundment Control Act—”does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those congress has enacted into law .” Yes, it does — when it comes to foreign policy. The Constitution allocates to the president sole authority over foreign policy (short of declaring war or signing a treaty). It does not permit Congress to substitute its foreign policy preferences for those of the president.
To the extent that the statute at issue constrains the power of the president to conduct foreign policy, it is unconstitutional.
Consider the following hypothetical situation: Congress allocates funds to Cuba (or Iran or Venezuela). The president says that is inconsistent with his foreign policy and refuses to release the funds. Surely the president would be within his constitutional authority. Or consider the actual situation that former President Barack Obama created when he unilaterally made the Iran deal and sent that enemy of America billions of dollars without congressional approval. I do not recall the GAO complaining about that presidential decision, despite the reality that the Iran deal was, in effect, a treaty that should require senate approval that was never given.
Whatever one may think about the substantive merits of what President Donald Trump did or did not do with regard to the Ukrainian money— which was eventually sent without strings —he certainly had the authority to delay sending the funds. The GAO was simply wrong in alleging that he violated the law, which includes the Constitution, by doing so.
To be sure, the statute requires notification to Congress, but if such notification significantly delays the president from implementing his foreign policy at a time of his choice, that too would raise serious constitutional issues.
Why then would a nonpartisan agency get it so wrong as a matter of constitutional law. There are two obvious answers: first, in the age of Trump there is no such thing as nonpartisan. The political world is largely divided into people who hate and people who love President Trump. This is as true of long term civil servants as it is of partisan politicians. We have seen this with regard to the FBI, the CIA, the Fed and other government agencies that are supposed to be nonpartisan. There are of course exceptions such as the inspector general of the Department of Justice who seems genuinely non-partisan. But most civil servants share the nationwide trend of picking sides. The GAO does not seem immune to this divisiveness.
Second, even if the GAO were non-partisan in the sense of preferring one political party over the other, it is partial to Congress over the president. The GAO is a congressional body. It is part of the legislative, not executive, branch. As such, it favors congressional prerogatives over executive power. It is not surprising therefore that it would elevate the authority of Congress to enact legislation over that of the president to conduct foreign policy.
In any event, even if the GAO were correct in its legal conclusion — which it is not— the alleged violation would be neither a crime nor an impeachable offense. It would be a civil violation subject to a civil remedy, as were the numerous violations alleged by the GAO with regard to other presidents. Those alleged violations were barely noted by the media. But in the hyper-partisan impeachment atmosphere, this report received breathless “breaking news” coverage and a demand for inclusion among the articles of impeachment.
If Congress and its GAO truly believe that President Trump violated the law, let them go to court and seek the civil remedy provided by the law. But let us not continue to water down the constitutional criteria for impeachment by including highly questionable, and on my view wrongheaded, views about violations of an unconstitutional civil law.