On the weekend, President Trump declared a national emergency in an effort to fund the US-Mexico border. In doing so, he’ll effectively bypass Congress and gain access to billions of dollars, among other capacities, which include the ability to declare curfews and even limit citizens' actual movements. It’s a scary amount of power for any president to have, but what exactly does this declaration, well, declare? Here’s what you need to know:
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) February 15, 2019
What is a declaration of a national emergency?
Good question! Before we define an “emergency,” you’ll need some context: US President Gerald Ford is the man responsible for first instituting the National Emergencies Act of 1976.
This act granted the ability of any president to declare a national crisis which threatens the country and its security (a “crisis,” however, is vaguely defined and very much up to the discretion of the president).
In declaring a national emergency, a president gains a number of powers, including the ability to freeze bank accounts, seize commodities, seize and control all communication, assign military forces, and limit travel, according to a 2007 Congressional Research Service Report. As the Atlantic notes, any obtained power doesn’t even have to relate to the emergency in question, either. In other words, the president is fucking powerful.
In his announcement, Trump explained his plans to divert funds from the Department of Defence military construction budget to building the wall. “We have so much money we don’t know what to do with it,” Trump said. “I don’t know what to do with all the money they’re giving us.”
Can he be stopped?
Sort of. Citizens can’t stop a president from declaring an emergency. As part of the National Emergencies Act, HOWEVER, US Congress is granted the right to terminate an emergency status (as NPR reports, Congress must also be informed of a national emergency and every single power invoked).
Congress can choose to terminate a declaration if both the House and Senate vote for it. To date, however, this check has never been used in US history. This is also very unlikely to take place with Republicans controlling the Senate (though there are a number of Republicans who have expressed disapproval).
Has this power ever been used before?
Yes, and pretty frequently (more than 50 times, in fact, and usually a number of times during each presidency). Most notably, Bush used it shortly after 9/11, in an attempt to gain power over the military. Obama used the power in 2010 in reaction to threats by Somali pirates.
And Trump’s already used it three times in his term alone (two times in response to threats posed by international affairs, and once in response to Russian interference in the election).
What happens next?
Jesus take the wheel! No, really, your guess is as good as mine.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times claims Trump can’t unlock funds for the wall, arguing that it’s a federal crime. Currently, House Democratic leaders are planning to block the declaration.
In his announcement, Trump said he is also expecting to be sued over the declaration and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has expressed that Democrats may take legal action.
“This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed President, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process,” Pelosi and Senator Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, said in a joint-statement after the announcement.
For now, the situation is ongoing.