Government by "National Emergency": Good or Bad for America?

Government by "National Emergency": Good or Bad for America?


As President Trump has repeatedly threatened — and now finally decided — that he will declare a “national emergency” to circumvent Congress and build the border wall that he desires, I have been thinking a lot about whether this might ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise, or whether it could mean the end of the American Republic and a descent of our nation into tyranny.

On the one hand, I believe in the original vision of the Framers for checks and balances between the Executive and Legislative branch, rather than a form of government in which the president has tremendous power to act unilaterally.

On the other hand, there are serious problems in this country that might not be possible to solve through the normal legislative process. The Constitution gives two Senators to each state, which means that small rural states have outsized influence on national government policy. As the Republican Party has become the party of rural America, this means that Republicans may control the Senate for many years to come. The Senate can block all legislative progress on very important issues such as preventing climate change, rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, and expanding health care coverage to all Americans.

If Trump sets the precedent of governing by “national emergency” to solve what he believes is a major issue — illegal immigration — then Democrats can surely do the same thing on the issues we care about when we hold the Presidency.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed this out today, that the same set of rules must apply both to Democrats and Republicans:

A Democratic president can do that, a Democratic president can declare emergencies as well.

Speaker Pelosi also said she is considering challenging Trump’s declaration of emergency in court.

This might become one of the most important, precedent-setting court cases in American history. For it will determine whether America retains its traditional form of government in which the Congress controls the power of the purse, or whether much of that power shifts to the Presidency through the “emergency” powers that Trump is asserting.

We are living in very interesting times.

In my heart, I abhor excessive power concentrated into the hands of one person or branch of government. But history shows that political systems such as that of the United States, in which power is spread among many institutions that can block each other from taking action, usually become so ineffective at solving problems that the people eventually allow a shift to centralized power, even autocracy.

America today might be witnessing a new phase of this transition.

I say a new phase because power has already been shifting from Congress to the Presidency over the past several decades — and most people haven’t been too bothered by it. For example, the Constitution specifies that Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war, but Congress has systematically abdicated most of its responsibility in this area and has allowed presidents to decide, in most cases, whether the United States will initiate or remain involved in military conflicts.

We might now be watching the expansion of presidential power on the home front. If Trump’s emergency declaration goes forward and is allowed by Congress and the courts to stand — i.e. if Congress does not impeach and remove Trump from office for this act, and if the Supreme Court does not strike down his act as illegal or unconstitutional — then the American system of government will have significantly changed.

Will a President Harris, Warren, or Sanders decide to declare a national emergency to implement the progressive infrastructure projects of the Green New Deal, for example, using the precedent of Trump’s “emergency-built” border wall? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

This might be what Americans will be debating two years from now. Actually, perhaps this is what our whole country should be debating right now — whether bold presidential action on big issues without the consent of an often paralyzed Congress is necessary or catastrophic for the future of our country.

Note: This article was originally posted at Daily Kos.