President Trump finally fulfilled the months-long threat of declaring a national emergency to secure funding for a wall along the southern US border. Democrats are already calling this move “unlawful” and denying that there is any emergency on the border, while the right-wing media is playing the typical “whataboutism” that seems to be a cornerstone of modern American political discourse. Though there has been much outrage over the announcement, I suspect not many know the history of national emergencies or why they are an excuse for the President to ignore checks and balances.
The first thing people need to understand is what exactly calls for a “national emergency” (a type of Executive Order) to be declared. Shockingly, there was no set definition for what constitutes an “emergency” when the 1976 National Emergencies Act was passed by Congress, and the only regulation on this power seems to be:
“When the President declares a national emergency, no powers or authorities made available by statute for use in the event of an emergency shall be exercised unless and until the President specifies the provisions of law under which he proposes that he, or other officers will act.”
Congress is supposed to meet every six months to vote on whether or not to continue the emergency measures, but according to a 2014 USA Today report, that has never happened and only one resolution has ever been introduced to revoke an emergency. The cold truth is that once the process begins, the powers and policies enacted rarely expire, as the US currently has 31 active national emergencies out of the 58 that have been declared since 1976.
A national emergency has been declared for anything and everything, including foreign crises, domestic disease outbreaks, and to fight drug trafficking. It allows for nearly unlimited powers. These have been used to buy and sell property without competitive bidding, suspend regulations and allow secret military patents, and in most cases, declaring President’s predecessor will keep the powers that they deem essential.
President Obama renewed a President Bush declaration from the 9/11 attacks that allows the President to call up National Guard members, appoint and fire military officers despite laws restricting the number of generals and admirals. Jimmy Carter’s 1979 sanctions against trade with Iran, a response to the Iranian hostage crisis, have been renewed each year despite the crisis ending a year and a half later, and continues to prevent citizens and companies from trading (and has evolved into extortive licensing laws).
Bill Clinton’s favorite pastime as president was declaring national emergencies, a whopping 17 total, to punish other countries typically with trade sanctions. In 1997, he declared one due to the Sudanese government’s “ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring governments” along with “human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom,” which was determined to “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
A 1994 declaration was enacted to combat “the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons” that wasn’t to be lifted until the Secretary of State determines it is “in the national security interests of the United States,” while a later 1995 order restricted businesses and individuals from trading with Colombia in order to fight drug trafficking and allows blocking of trade to any person who the Secretary of State determines plays a “a significant role in international narcotics trafficking centered in Colombia; or materially to assist in, or provide financial or technological support for or goods or services in support of […]”; an extremely open-ended requirement.
More than 20 years later, these along with three other national emergencies from the Clinton administration remain in effect with new policies added as they have been renewed.
So, when Trump supporting Republicans point at previous presidents for declaring national emergencies and the Democrats call the move a mere power grab, they’re both correct, but neither are making these arguments due to an overall disagreement with the abusive policy. The difference between the current national emergency and those past is that Trump’s overreach is a much more blatant abuse; not hiding behind the glamour and drama of war, drugs, and humanitarian missions to slowly make the pedestal larger.
The zero nonsense, direct to the face style of the President has revealed that the national emergencies power needs to be abolished, for it will be abused again. Sadly, most citizens will not come to same conclusion, but continue to point fingers at the other side for having caused it.
To those who may think this overreach is unique to Trump, I implore you to see it’s just a continuance of Presidential tradition to have just a little bit more power than their predecessors. To those who feel that this tradition is a justification for the declaration, I implore you to think if you felt the same when a politician you disagreed with abused their authority.
And to both these groups, I hope that the realization that this additional notch on the belt of executive abuse will open their eyes to see the long-term dangers of short-term gains. President Trump is 100% in the wrong for declaring a National Emergency and this duty that has so little oversight needs to be removed.