President Donald Trump has been toying with declaring a national emergency for weeks, and on Friday he finally did so. This is a horrific subversion of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers and should worry citizens and politicians of both parties. Unfortunately, the unconstitutional consolidation of executive power is not very surprising coming from a president who has expressed admiration for authoritarian regimes.
In a true emergency, Congress does not have time to act and in these situations, many presidents have taken such unilateral action to reallocate money. These responses were authorized under laws passed by Congress that gave the president latitude in times of crisis. This time, however, the only emergency is the political emergency circling Donald Trump. After shutting down the government for 35 days in a temper tantrum over a failure to achieve his primary campaign promise despite his party controlling all three branches of government for the first two years of his presidency, Trump was forced to compromise. The emergency declaration is purely political, and in the president’s own words, he “didn’t need to do this.”
I applaud the swift and appropriate condemnation of this declaration by Congressional Democrats. Even though the precedent set by Trump’s emergency declaration might make it easier for a potential President Kamala Harris to declare gun violence an emergency, a President Pete Buttigieg to declare climate change an emergency or a President Elizabeth Warren to declare wealth inequality an emergency, this accumulation of executive power is another dangerous step down the road to authoritarianism. We have seen the President continuously assault the free press, demonize the independent judiciary and controversially politicize public service: all early warning signs associated with authoritarian regimes.
There are two ways that we can attempt to stop this gross abuse of power: a legal option and a legislative option. Since the laws give the President sweeping powers in emergencies — without explicitly defining the term — and this is one of the first emergency declarations to be contentious, the courts will inevitably be in uncharted waters. The best hope for Americans is for Congress to pass a joint resolution of termination with a veto-proof majority, which would require strong Republican support. It would send a clear and united message to the president that the American people will not stand for the undermining of the legislative process. Congressional Republicans revealed their total cowardice in the shutdown fight, so this may be a longshot, but it has a much more certain outcome than throwing up our hands and banking on the courts. It seems that the only way to hold this administration accountable is for citizens to take action themselves.
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A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, print edition. Email Nathan Maue at [email protected]