How Trump's Border Wall Differs From Past National Emergency Declarations

February 15, 2019

By Carlo Versano

Two years after President Richard Nixon resigned, Congress passed and President Ford signed the National Emergencies Act of 1976 in an attempt to regulate the president's ability to declare open-ended national emergencies. The point of the law, commentators said at the time, was to give Congress the power of oversight on matters of national urgency.

With a veto-proof majority, Congress could override declarations of national emergency that were executed by the president. The law was, in essence, intended to be a check on executive power.

It is perhaps ironic then that President Trump announced he will, under the provisions of that law, declare a national emergency as a way to circumvent Congress' "power of the purse" ー in this case, the body's refusal to grant him the billions he requested in border wall funding.

Since that law was signed by President Gerald Ford, there have been 58 declarations of national emergencies, 31 of which are still in effect, according to the Federal Register.

What differentiates President Trump's emergency declaration on border security ー aside from the fact that his own administration says illegal border crossings are at near-historic lows ー is that it involves an issue of domestic politics rather than foreign policy. A review of the 31 national emergencies currently in effect finds that nearly all of them concern issues like economic sanctions in countries like Libya and Syria, human rights abuses in places like Venezuela, or export controls.

President George W. Bush declared a national emergency in the days after 9/11 that is annually renewed, but the vast majority of the others involve international and transnational crises that many Americans probably didn't even know existed at the time they were enacted ー and certainly don't concern domestic policy. The few domestic national emergencies addressed crises like the H1N1 pandemic that were not exactly political hot button issues.

That puts the border emergency in a category of its own, and has led even some Republicans to grumble that the president is setting a precedent that will come back to bite the party when Democrats next control the executive branch.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi latched onto that concern on Thursday while she delivered remarks on the anniversary of the Parkland school shooting:

"Why don't you declare that emergency, Mr. President? ... A Democratic president could."