Republican senator and presidential maybe-hopeful Lindsey Graham stopped by the "politics and pies" forum in Concord, New Hampshire, today, where he announced that if he is elected president in 2016, his first act will be to deploy the military in Washington to force Congress to reverse cuts to the defense and intelligence budgets.
Yes, you heard that right. Here are Graham's exact words:
And here's the first thing I would do if I were president of the United States. I wouldn't let Congress leave town until we fix this. I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to. We're not leaving town until we restore these defense cuts. We are not leaving town until we restore the intel cuts.
Graham would use the military to force members of Congress to not just vote on the bill — but to pass it. Graham didn't say "until I get an up-or-down vote on restoring defense cuts." He said "until we restore these defense cuts."
In other words, Graham is proposing that his first act as president would be to use the military to force the legislative branch to pass his agenda.
Is Senator Graham announcing his plans for a self-coup?
If taken literally, Graham is basically announcing his plan to stage a coup: he is saying that if he gains control of the executive branch, he will use his authority as commander in chief to overcome the separation of powers and force the legislative branch to do his bidding, instead of allowing it to act as an independent branch of the government.
Political scientists often refer to that type of action as a "self-coup," a situation in which a legitimate leader uses the military or other armed force to unlawfully seize more power than is permitted under the constitution of the country in question. Usually that's a permanent seizure of power and a total shutdown of the legislature, so what Graham is proposing is a relatively mild version. But as silver linings go, "it's a coup, but only a small one" isn't very comforting.
Although I suppose that's one way to deal with congressional deadlock.
There is no universe in which this is remotely legal behavior
Maybe Graham was just joking (he sounded serious) or just speaking figuratively to make a point about his determination to restore cut military funding (okay, but weird way to do it).
If he was being remotely serious, though, this proposal is dramatically different from anything that is actually legal — such as, say, the Senate leadership using the Capitol police or sergeant-at-arms to ensure that the Senate has a quorum.
That happened in 1988, when Democratic leadership had the Capitol police carry Republican Senator Bob Packwood feet-first into the Senate chamber to ensure a quorum. Harry Reid threatened to use similar methods more recently when he was Senate majority leader.
But what the Senate did in 1988 was compel senators' presence, not compel them to vote a certain way. It was permitted by the Senate rules, which say that "a majority of the Senators present may direct the Sergeant at Arms to request, and, when necessary, to compel the attendance of the absent Senators" to reach a quorum. And it was the Senate policing itself, and thus did not violate the separation of powers.
What Lindsey Graham is proposing is to physically force members of Congress to vote how he commands. His plan violates constitutional separation of powers in just about the most extreme way imaginable, by forcing the executive branch's will on the legislature. And it is a pretty safe bet that Senate rules do not grant the president authority to have the 101st Airborne Division occupy the Capitol until Congress votes the way he wants.
Graham's proposal is so astonishing that it's pretty much impossible to believe that's what he really meant. He is a mainstream politician and an attorney who served as an Air Force JAG. Surely — surely — he is not actually proposing such an unconstitutional action.
Update: Graham's spokesperson has clarified to Bloomberg that when Graham said "I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to," that statement was "not to be taken literally." Glad that's been cleared up.