The National Emergencies Act gives presidents the ability to declare emergencies, without defining what an emergency is. As a result, presidents “have declared national emergencies with little regard to whether a real emergency has actually existed,” according to two law professors. Obama relied on this power multiple times, declaring emergencies over Muammar Gaddaffi (Executive Order 13566), Somali pirates, swine flu, Burundi leaders, and the Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel. Four of those are still in effect, notes Ted Frank.
Trump has now taken this to the next level. He declared a national emergency on the southern border, to try to build his border wall. Then, he made a statement that some interpreted as an admission that there is no emergency. Trump said, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do this much faster.” That statement will haunt the Justice Department in court when it is sued over Trump’s emergency declaration. Illegal immigration and smuggling are problems, but it would not have occurred to me to call them a “national emergency.”
Democrats are already pointing to the emergency declaration and suggesting that when they retake the White House, they may take revenge by declaring bogus national emergencies of their own. As The Hill newspaper reported, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday issued a warning to Republicans poised to support President Trump‘s decision to declare a national emergency at the southern border: The next Democratic president, she said, could do the same on guns. ‘A Democratic president can declare emergencies, as well,’ Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.”
Similarly, a progressive writing in the New York Times wrote:
I very much look forward to a Democratic president declaring a state of emergency to ban assault weapons after the next school shooting, to create a universal Medicare opt-in for the uninsured, and to impose a large-scale reordering of our fossil fuel-based economy after the next devastating wildfires or hurricanes. And Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) wrote, “Gun violence is a national emergency. Climate Change is a national emergency. Income inequality is a national emergency.
Unilateral action by presidents in response to problems often makes them worse. Obama saw an emergency in the late Libyan dictator Gaddafi, but Obama’s deposing Gaddafi made things worse: It resulted in a devastating civil war in Libya that killed thousands of people, strengthened terrorist groups, and indirectly destabilized or impoverished other African countries like Niger and Mali as well. Central planning from Washington often backfires. The so-called Green New Deal, a purported response to the “emergency” of climate change, would cost trillions of dollars, while shutting down some vital carbon-free power plants, and financing a vast amount of wasteful transportation and construction projects.