Whilst campaigning for the presidency in 2016, President Donald Trump’s perhaps most memorable campaign promise was to “build a wall” on the United States-Mexico border. Citing an enormous influx of illegal immigrants, he argued that a wall was the only way to protect our country from dangerous criminals. However, his plans for a wall have been vigorously opposed by Democratic Party leadership.
The issue came to a boil this past December, when a partial federal government shutdown occurred after President Trump vetoed a federal budget bill that did not include $5.7 billion for the construction of a border wall. This prompted a 35-day standoff that left 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without receiving a paycheck for over a month. A bipartisan stopgap bill was then signed by President Trump on Jan. 25 of this year, funding the federal government until Feb. 15 and allowing a more permanent compromise to be reached between the two parties. On Feb. 14, Congress passed a federal budget that included less than a quarter of the $5.7 billion requested and only provides for the construction of 55 new miles of barrier. Instead of vetoing the budget and sending the federal government into a second partial shutdown, President Trump has decided to declare a national state of emergency and plans to reapportion money from the Department of Defense in defiance of Congress’ budget. Through a series of executive actions, he will obtain a reported $8 billion for the border wall (including the $1.375 billion included in the federal budget).
All arguments for the construction of a southern border wall aside, the precedent of a president using executive power to reappropriate federal funds in order to deliver on a political promise and undercut Congress’ power of the purse should be concerning to any citizen. Though other presidents have vetoed federal budget bills in order to achieve parts of their agenda, no president has gone so far as to declare a national emergency in order to get money for a program that Congress has explicitly not funded. In the past, a state of emergency has typically consisted of “a situation beyond the ordinary which threatens the health or safety of citizens and which cannot be properly addressed by the use of other law” (Duhaime’s Law Dictionary). However, such a distinction is not mandated by the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which allows the president to decide what constitutes a national emergency. Previous states of emergency include those declared after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and during the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, both of those being times when decisive action was needed in order to confront an urgent and imminently dangerous situation.
The current situation at the southern border seems to lack the immediacy that would normally qualify it as an emergency. For that reason, this executive declaration is an egregious abuse of executive power and seems to fly in the face of congressional authority, not to mention that of the United States Constitution. Though both Congress and the federal court system could potentially curtail the state of emergency on the grounds that there is no clear and present danger at the southern border, there is no guarantee that the construction of the border will be stopped, and a very dangerous precedent may be established.
Republicans may see this emergency declaration as a necessary decision that will help move their agenda along. But what happens when a Democrat is elected? That Democrat would potentially be able to fund any number of liberal policies, independent of Congress, simply by declaring a state of emergency surrounding the issue. Any such future presidents could potentially fund a universal health care program or the environmental “Green New Deal” at the snap of their fingers. Such action would undoubtedly be anathema to the conservative Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who have endorsed and even lauded President Trump’s actions in declaring the state of emergency.
Despite the implications of his actions, it is hardly surprising that the president has declared a state of emergency after failing to get the requisite money from Congress. He wants to be able to come through on a campaign promise so he can keep his base happy, and wants to address the perception that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could do damage to his reputation as a forceful and effective leader.
Nevertheless, the Democrats won the skirmish over the border wall funding in Congress and, in order to win the battle over southern border security, Trump has been forced to resort to extreme measures. But the long-term political effects may be devastating to his re-election hopes. Rank and file Republicans, along with independent moderates, are highly likely to oppose such a seizure of executive power.
By laying down his trump card early, the president may have won the battle. But by doing so, he may have lost the war for control over the White House in 2020.
Zach Bethel is a senior at Riverside Christian School.