In a recent congressional hearing, Representative Brad Sherman’s observation got it entirely right: more than two weeks after Mohammed Morsi’s ouster from power, the United States government still isn’t characterizing the events that transpired in Egypt as a coup. Though Secretary of State John Kerry is doubtless correct that the situation is complex, the fact that a coup took place is not. Whether we call it a military coup or a “civil society coup” (which is probably the most applicable term), the fact that one occurred is neither complex nor mysterious.

The Obama administration has thus far refused to call the coup what it is not because the United States was complicit in these events (as some pro-Morsi Egyptians have charged), but rather because that designation has policy consequences: US law prohibits the provision of aid to any country whose head of state is overthrown by “a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” As Sherman observed, the administration just doesn’t trust Congress to deal with this issue. And let’s face it: Sherman is also right that most voters are unlikely to trust Congress, either.

This is not the first time that the administration has distorted rather simple concepts to avoid having to consult with Congress. In the recent intervention in Libya, the administration claimed that its activities didn’t constitute “hostilities”—because it wanted to avoid the War Powers Resolution’s requirement of seeking congressional approval. Although the administration’s extremely narrow understanding of that phrase is consistent with the past practice of other executives, that past practice is rooted in expediency rather than sound legal principle. To be frank, you’d have to be insane to think dropping bombs on a foreign country for months on end somehow can’t really be thought of as “hostilities.”

So in Libya, as with Egypt, the administration employed an idiosyncratic definition to avoid putting an issue in the hands of Congress. On the one hand, who can blame them? It’s hard to argue that Congress deserves better than its truly dismal approval rating, and the executive will tend to focus on achieving what it considers the right policy outcome. The vast majority of executives would see maintaining very obvious legal fictions as an acceptable price for achieving the right outcome. But on the other hand, when the executive goes down this road, it means the political system is truly not functioning in the way it was intended. Aggressive definition of various terms in order to avoid congressional consultation is anti-democratic, as it subsumes power to the executive branch that was intended to be subjected to the checks and balances that ostensibly characterize our political system.

So long as that political system is perceived as broken, this pattern will repeat: the executive (whether the Obama administration or its successors) will continue to employ absurd definitions of real-world events to avoid dealing with the legislature. Its actions will likely be understandable, albeit perhaps not justified, each and every time. But from the perspective of what this means for a functioning system, it cannot be regarded as anything but a very bad sign.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program.