Domestic Affairs

Pouring Salt on a Wound: The Emergency No One Wants

After months of struggling to obtain funding for his coveted border wall, President Trump may have finally acquired the resources for its construction by declaring a national emergency. Despite the fact that presidential declarations of national emergencies have been a rather common occurrence in modern history, Trump’s border wall exhibits different and far more contentious circumstances than any of these other instances. To many observers, it appears that Trump merely called for emergency action because of his failure to garner enough support for his wall through conventional legislative means. This demonstration of executive power may have paved the way for future Democratic presidents wishing to enact dramatic policy changes of their own without Congressional approval.

While Trump’s struggle for a border wall can be traced back to the 2016 campaign trail, a more substantial effort for its creation materialized at the end of 2018, when Trump initiated a partial government shutdown. The shutdown spanned 35 days, making it the longest in American history. However, Democrats remained steadfast in their resolve to withhold the necessary funds, and Trump walked away from the negotiations with practically nothing.

In the following weeks, Congressional debate and negotiations continued, but once again, Republicans came away with little to show for their efforts. Trump threatened to initiate another shutdown but suggested that he could alternatively rely on a national emergency to secure funding. While he signed the funding bill that Congress passed to prevent another shutdown that lacked provisions for his wall, on February 15th, Trump made the contentious declaration. His action has since sparked heated debate over the legality of such a move, as well as the dangerous precedent set in American politics.

In 1976, Congress passed the National Emergencies Act, which regulated and standardized the process for which a president could utilize specific reserved powers for times of foreign or domestic crises. Since then, there have been 58 national emergencies declared, 31 of which remain ongoing, meaning they have been renewed consistently by each new administration. Of these previous declarations, 49 have been made for the purposes of economic sanctions and export limits. The others were made to address specific issues, such as when George W. Bush declared an emergency after 9/11, or Obama declared an emergency to deal with the outbreak of the swine flu.

Fox News host Chris Wallace was quick to point out in an interview with Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller that Trump’s wall would differ from past emergency declarations in an important respect. In no other instance had presidents asked Congress for funding prior to taking their executive action. Declaring the emergency after having first failed to obtain the appropriations from Congress makes the situation look as if Trump is abusing his executive rights just to further his own agenda.

Numerous lawsuits have already been filed against the Trump administration, most notably by the American Civil Liberties Union and by a coalition of 16 states, both of which argue there is no emergency to warrant such drastic action, citing the president’s own words against him. During the press conference in which Trump made the declaration, he said, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.” Many feel that this phrase, in particular, will be crucial for plaintiffs suing Trump, lending significant strength to the idea that the president is declaring an emergency to subvert the legislative branch because their lack of cooperation and deference is irritating to him. While lawsuits are pending, any measures that Trump would potentially enact using his statutory powers will be stalled.

House Democrats are also preparing a resolution that would reject President Trump’s state of emergency. Yet, it would require a supermajority to override a presidential veto. Many Republican senators have expressed reservations about declaring a state of emergency to build the border wall. However, whether or not there will be substantial resistance to the president remains to be seen. Perhaps in the ensuing weeks, stronger divisions within the GOP may surface as lawmakers are forced to choose between the wishes of the president and avoiding creating a dangerous precedent.

If all of the measures currently in place against Trump taking action fail, and the border wall is funded and constructed, the extent of executive power for future presidents risks being dangerously blurred. In many ways, continuing with his original plan despite an obvious denial by Congress exhibits a disregard for proper legislative procedure. If there was truly a crisis on the border, then perhaps this could be excused, but the statistics indicate that illegal immigrants do not pose as immediate of a threat as the Trump administration make them out to be.

The claim that there is a true threat is dubious at best. Annual figures for apprehensions along the southern border have dramatically decreased since 2000, with 2017 sporting the lowest numbers since 1971. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted to claim that US officials stopped 4,000 suspected terrorists attempting to come through the southern border, but as Fox News host Chris Wallace pointed out, this is simply not true. The terrorists described in this figure are being stopped at airports, not the southern border. Research actually shows that immigrants and aliens commit proportionally “no more than and possibly even fewer crimes” than native-born citizens.

Trump has drawn fire from fellow Republicans such as Ann Coulter, who point out that declaring a national emergency in this manner could enable future Democratic presidents to declare emergencies to secure funding for their own policy agenda, regardless of Congressional opinion. Perhaps a Democratic president might call for immediate funds for climate change prevention or increased gun supervision. The debate for the border wall’s funding reveals an intimidating level of power that a president possesses that could be used to address a personal issue or political agendas. Congress could work to place legal checks on executive emergency powers. However, it is necessary that presidents be prevented from abusing these powers, lest they wish to color their leadership with a dangerous authoritarian character.

If Trump’s national emergency stands, it will have negative consequences for basically all involved. The government will be negatively affected because already appropriated funds will be redirected to an unnecessary project. The taxpayer will face the brunt of the wall’s cost even though Trump promised Mexico would pay for it. Land will be confiscated from countless Americans living along the border. Ironically, Republicans may also be affected, forced to face their own slew of Democratic emergencies enabled by the new precedent that Trump’s dangerous declaration has the potential to set. The declaration appears to have achieved only more disruption the political system, leaving many to wonder what benefit was expected to come of this move in the first place.

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