Newly-installed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) claimed Thursday that the Constitution gives her equal power to President Donald Trump.
The New York Times reported: “Asked if she considers herself Mr. Trump’s equal, she replied, ‘The Constitution does.’”
The context of her remarks was a discussion of the equality of women — but Pelosi’s reference to the Constitution made clear that she was also making an argument about actual power as a matter of law.
In her inaugural speech to the House of Representatives on Thursday, Pelosi sounded a similar theme, calling Congress “co-equal” to the presidency:
Our nation is at an historic moment. Two months ago, the American people spoke, and demanded a new dawn.
They called upon the beauty of our Constitution: our system of checks and balances that protects our democracy, remembering that the legislative branch is Article I: the first branch of government, co-equal to the president and judiciary.
By inference, Pelosi seems to believe, the leader of the legislative branch is equal to the president in power.
But there are several flaws in Pelosi’s analysis.
First, Pelosi does not lead the legislative branch. She leads only one chamber of that branch — and the House is generally considered the lower chamber relative to the Senate. Moreover, she only leads at the pleasure of her party, and is only one among equals. The Constitution mentions the “Speaker” but does not give the office special powers.
By Pelosi’s logic, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could just as easily claim that he is equal to the president in power — and his claim would arguably hold more weight, given the pre-eminence of the Senate.
Second, the U.S. Constitution does not actually refer to the three branches as “co-equal” — a term that appears nowhere in the text. It is commonly held that all three share governing responsibility, but each has some ability to check the others.
Pelosi seems to suggest the legislature is the most important because it comes first under Article I, but the president has some leeway to act independently, especially in national security and foreign policy, and the courts can overturn legislation.
Third, Pelosi never argued that Republican speakers John Boehner or Paul Ryan were “equal” to President Barack Obama. In fact, she made a point Thursday of defending Obama’s controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy — even though DACA was implemented in defiance of Congress.
President Obama also altered the Affordable Care Act — i.e. Obamacare — several times without any authorization from the legislature.
Pelosi defended the president and his usurpation of power — when that president was a Democrat.