How Trump's Recent National Emergency Compares to 31 Others Still Active
By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
For several weeks, President Donald Trump considered the option of declaring a national emergency if Congress refused to meet his demand of $5.7 billion for border fence funding. In a bipartisan bill presented to the President in order to prevent another partial government shutdown, Congress offered only $1.375 billion for barrier construction. Trump signed the bill, but declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 to obtain the remaining funding. What may surprise many Americans is that there are currently 31 other active national emergencies. Here’s how Trump’s recent declaration compares to the others.
The National Emergencies Act was enacted in September 1976, empowers the President to activate special powers during a crisis but imposes certain procedural formalities when invoking such powers. The perceived need for the law arose from the scope and number of laws granting special powers to the executive in times of national emergency. Congress can undo an emergency declaration with either a joint resolution and the President’s signature, or with a veto-proof (two-thirds) majority vote. Powers available under this Act are limited to the 136 emergency powers Congress has defined by law.
Fifty-Nine National Emergencies Since 1976
Since the Act was signed in 1976, 59 national emergencies have been declared by U.S. presidents, and 31 of those are still active today. Many of the declarations have involved initiating economic sanctions and other trade restrictions on countries involved in unsavory activities, like Iran during the hostage crisis, South Africa during apartheid, and the conflict in the Balkans. Some have addressed the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, as well as weapons of mass destruction. No one should be surprised that former President George W. Bush declared a national emergency three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
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With very few exceptions, the vast majority of the previous 58 national emergency declarations have been directed towards or involved economic or security situations in foreign countries. Only four declarations have been domestic in nature: the 9/11 attacks in 2001 (Bush), Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Bush), the swine flu epidemic in 2009 (Obama), and foreign interference in U.S. elections in 2018 (Trump).
Thirty-One Still In Effect
National emergencies have to be renewed annually, and 31 are still in effect as a result of these annual renewals. Some go back as far as 1979, and many involve blocking assets and properties belonging to terrorist groups or transnational criminal organizations in countries like Iran, Syria, and Colombia. Others are in response to political violence or the hindrance of the democratic process in countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Lebanon. However, no previous declaration was related to illegal immigration or border security as it relates to land crossings along the U.S-Mexico border.
The reasons for invoking the Act and declaring a national emergency vary, and are sometimes related to the broad swath of authority bestowed upon the President. The Atlantic explains the intended purpose succinctly: “The government’s ordinary powers might be insufficient in a crisis, and amending the law to provide greater ones might be too slow and cumbersome. Emergency powers are meant to give the government a temporary boost until the emergency passes or there is time to change the law through normal legislative processes.”
In the case of the border, President Trump is unhappy that Congress is being “cumbersome” in regard to his desire to build an additional 234 miles of border fencing, and this is what he perceives to be his only way to acquire the funding he wants more quickly. He blatantly stated during a press conference on Feb. 15 that he did not need to declare a national emergency, but chose to do so because going through Congress would take too long and he wanted to build the border fence quickly.
Supreme Court Looms For Trump’s Declaration
Trump’s declaration will be challenged in court, and the final decision on its legality will likely be made by the Supreme Court. National emergency declarations have rarely been legally challenged, and the most notable case was Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, ruled on in 1952, which overturned President Harry S. Truman’s national emergency. According to the Washington Post, Truman signed the emergency declaration and seized privately owned steel mills to preempt a national steelworker strike during the Korean War. Truman argued that continued operation of the mills was necessary for the country’s defense. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that he did not have the authority to seize private property just because he was the president.
The difference between then and now is that the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976 after Truman’s time, and may give Trump that very authority. Despite strong arguments and statistics demonstrating that the situation at the border does not constitute a true national emergency—especially in contrast to events like Katrina or 9/11—the Act does not require any type of justification before being invoked. It’s unlikely Congress has the numbers to rescind Trump’s declaration, so this declaration will slowly work its way through the legal process.