This Is Our Emergency

Last Friday, President Trump threatened to declare a national emergency and build his border wall using “the military version of eminent domain.” By Tuesday, Trump seemed to have climbed down somewhat, declining to repeat the threat in his televised Oval Office address. But the week’s end found the president declaring it would be “very surprising” if he didn’t pull the trigger.

So is the emergency-powers gambit a live option or—like the executive order revoking birthright citizenship Trump floated before the midterms—another pump-fake designed to thrill the base and rile the media? Either way, it’s a noxious, thuggish proposal. Using the army to do an end-run around Congress is not how constitutional government is supposed to work. Imagine believing that Latin American immigration so threatens our free institutions that only banana republic tactics can protect us. 

About the best one can say for the idea is that it has the accidental virtue of concentrating the mind wonderfully about the powers we’ve concentrated in the executive branch. 

Our Constitution cedes vanishingly few emergency powers to the president. He commands “the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” and has the power, via Article II, section 3, to convene Congress on “extraordinary Occasions,” such as a national emergency. “That is about as far as his crisis authorities go,” notes the University of Virginia’s Saikrishna Prakash: “the convening authority would have been unnecessary if the chief executive could take all actions necessary to manage ‘extraordinary occasions.’” 

In Youngstown, the 1952 “steel seizure” case, the Supreme Court rebuffed the Truman administration’s claim of a general presidential emergency power divorced from specific statutory or constitutional authority. Justice Jackson, in his influential concurrence, suggested that the Framers neglected to provide such authority for fear “that emergency powers would tend to kindle emergencies.” 

Surely, then, the president can’t just gin up a bogus crisis and use the military to get what he wants when Congress won’t give it to him—can he? It would be nice to be able to answer that question with a confident “no.” Unfortunately, in this case, at least two provisions of the U.S. Code passed during the 1980s, 33 USC § 2293  and 10 USC § 2808, give Trump a non-frivolous rationale for his claim that “I can do it if I want.” 

Overbroad delegations of emergency authority to the executive are a longstanding problem. During the Watergate-era congressional resurgence, a 1974 Senate special committee investigation (co-chaired by Frank Church of Church Committee fame) identified 470 provisions of federal law delegating emergency powers to the president and four proclamations of national emergency, dating as far back as 1933, then still in effect. That investigation led to the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which repealed existing emergency declarations, required the president to formally declare any claimed national emergency and specify the statutory authority invoked, and subjected new declarations to a one-year sunset unless renewed.  

Despite those efforts, the U.S. Code today remains honeycombed with overbroad delegations of emergency power to the executive branch. A Brennan Center report released last month identifies 136 statutory powers the president can invoke in a declared national emergency. Few of these provisions require anything more than the president’s signature on the emergency declaration to trigger his new powers—“stroke of the pen, law of the land—kinda cool,” in the Clinton-era phrase. 

Most of these emergency powers have never been invoked, many of them are innocuous, and some—like the provision that allows suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act in a natural disaster—are even sensible. But other long-dormant powers are extraordinarily dangerous.

Writing in the Atlantic, the Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein highlights a WWII-era amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 empowering the president to close or take over “‘any facility or station for wire communication’ upon his proclamation ‘that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.’” She sketches a nightmare scenario in which Trump puts the country on a war footing with Iran; invokes § 706 of the Communications Act to assume control of U.S. internet traffic, deploys federal troops to put down the resulting unrest, and scares people away from the polling stations with a menacing Presidential Alert text message. Goitein grants that “this scenario might sound extreme,” and I admit I found it a bit overcooked. Even if the administration wanted to do something like this, I’m confident it would go bust, thanks to the sort of spectacular ineptitude that botched the initial rollout of the Travel Ban. 

However, she’s absolutely right to call on Congress to “shore up the guardrails of liberal democracy” with comprehensive reform of emergency powers. “Committees in the House could begin this process now,” she writes, “by undertaking a thorough review of existing emergency powers and declarations,” laying out a roadmap for repealing unnecessary delegations, and providing “stronger protections for abuse.” The sooner, the better: you never know when a competent authoritarian is going to come along.