The government shutdown remains ongoing, now the longest in U.S. history, with no end in sight. Increasingly, there has been talk among pundits that President Donald Trump may declare a national emergency in order to build the border wall that he campaigned on.
Presidential declarations of emergency are authorized by the National Emergencies Act, passed in 1976.
In brief, the president can use such a declaration to acquire powers that he would not possess under ordinary circumstances. How many powers? Over 100.
Included in these provisions are the ability to freeze Americans’ bank accounts, the power to shut down electronic communication systems, and the right to impose martial law. These powers go far beyond simply acquiring funds to build a wall.
To be clear: I don’t believe that President Trump is going to freeze your bank account and turn the country into a military dictatorship. I do, however, worry that using this tool to achieve a nakedly political goal may legitimize it as a means by which presidents might try to achieve other political goals, or as a means of subverting democracy altogether.
If that happens, it would represent a serious threat to American liberties at home and abroad. Moreover, these powers can be renewed each year, ad infinitum.
The executive would be able to achieve nearly complete dominance of almost every aspect of American life.
The question is simple: do we really want to take that chance? Given Congress’s propensity for gridlock and the growing problems of legitimacy in the judiciary, there is ample reason to worry that some Americans might say “Yes.”