On February 15th, following weeks of wrangling over funding for his planned border wall, President Trump spectacularly broke the deadlock by declaring a national emergency. This allows him to divert money from other areas of government — mostly the Department of Defense — and use it for border security.
Thanks to the stubbornness of Democrats in Congress it looks like this is the only way to get the wall built. However, the president’s opponents are already trying to obstruct him again. Will they be able to do that, or has Trump found a solution that really works?
- Under the 1976 National Emergencies Act, the president can activate special powers during a crisis. There’s a wide range of these powers — 136 in total, only 13 of which need to be enabled by Congress — and some of them are fairly dramatic.
- For example, during a national emergency, the president can draft retired Coast Guard members back to active duty, suspend the Clean Air Act, order military construction projects and even suspend US laws on chemical and biological weapons. Of course, they can also divert existing military spending appropriations to new projects, like the wall.
- Since 1976 a total of 59 national emergencies have been declared and 39 of them are still in force. Most of them were declared by Clinton (17), GW Bush (12) or Obama (13), but every president since 1976 has declared at least two.
- Ongoing emergencies include sanctions imposed on Iran by Carter and Clinton, on Sudan imposed by Clinton and on international terrorist groups put in place by GW Bush.
- The president’s emergency powers are wide-ranging, but they’re not unlimited. Congress has already cut back on the original list of powers and can restrict the remaining ones.
- Congress can also rescind a national emergency with either a joint declaration of both houses and the president’s signature or with a two-thirds majority vote. President Trump isn’t going to sign a joint resolution, but Nancy Pelosi will be trying very hard to find enough dissident Republicans to put together a veto-proof majority.
- There are also two lawsuits already filed, and probably more to come. Public Citizen, a liberal pressure group, filed Friday night (2/15) in a DC court. They claim that Trump exceeded his powers in declaring the emergency and has violated the separation of powers.
- A second suit, also in DC, was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. This targets the Justice Department, contending that the administration failed to show sufficient transparency on the grounds for the emergency.
- It’s unlikely either of the court cases will succeed in revoking the emergency. Could Pelosi manage to build a large enough majority in Congress to force the president to back down? It’s possible; some Republicans will almost certainly side with her on this issue. But it isn’t very likely she’ll succeed.