Presidents are supposed to wield limited authority. Or so the Founders believed.
THIS IS ON CONGRESS. It has been a long time in the making. And those who profess fealty to the Founders, and particularly to the United States Constitution and Madisonian democracy, should be aghast.
President Trump can threaten to declare a state of national emergency in order to build a wall at the Mexican border not because he is usurping the authority of Congress, but because Congress willingly handed off its proper role long ago.
The National Emergencies Act was adopted by Congress in the 1970s and, essentially, gave presidents the authority to declare emergencies and do, well, whatever they claimed was necessary. That system of checks and balances authored by the Founders? Never mind.
ON THE SURFACE the idea seemed to have merit, in a lot of ways, when enacted. It was concluded that, in the modern era, situations could arise in which the nation needed to move fast in a crisis and the usual congressional process could take too long. So the emergencies act was intended to give the chief executive authority to order swift responses when necessary.
But as everyone knows from their own everyday lives, good intentions can lead to not-so-good outcomes.
And here's where emergencies powers become problematic - in defining what is an emergency. In shorthand, here's the answer: An emergency is whatever a president says it is.
THERE'S AN OLD SAYING: Any form of government will work if the people in charge are good enough.
Trouble is, people aren't necessarily good, and power often is exercised for nefarious reasons.
That's why the Founders produced constitutional government, so no particular person could run away with authority and do whatever they wanted. It's messy, but government was intended to be institutional, not individual. People with differing views, from all across the nation, were supposed to be elected and represent their constituents, seeking and finding common purpose.
Article I of the Constitution grants all law-making powers to the Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Certain powers rest with each body. For example, appropriations must originate in the House. The authority to advise and consent on presidential appointments is assigned to the Senate. The Congress is authorized to deliberate and legislate, while the executive's powers are limited.
Article II spells out those executive authorities. The president is the commander in chief of the military. The president may grant reprieves and pardons, and require opinions from the heads of executive departments. Presidents can make treaties, and appointments of certain government officers, with the consent of the Senate. Presidents can call Congress into session, and can propose - but not require - consideration of measures by Article I legislators.
ONE NEED NOT be particularly astute to notice that bears scant resemblance to the modern federal government's state of affairs. Increasingly, Congress has become a fractious partisan cesspool where nothing but fierce and futile argument takes place. The solution for America's Article I elected representatives has been to cede authority to the Article II president, allowing the government to become executive-centric, creating what has been called the "Imperial Presidency."
In that sense, one may forgive President Trump for thinking he can do whatever he wants because Congress is such a hopeless mess. So Trump, who promised a border wall (paid for by Mexico) throughout his campaign and the last two years in the White House, apparently believes all he has to do is declare an emergency - whether one exists or not - and start pouring concrete or bending steel.
And he may be right.
Congress has assumed the supine position to the White House, and this - though it clearly falls outside constitutional norms - is the result.
HERE'S WHY WE believe that's a bad thing. The Founders fought a war to end government by an individual's whim, and devised a system to guard against too much authority resting with any particular person. What Congress has done, by taking a knee to the executive branch, is make way for some rogue individual in the White House who may want to pursue an authoritarian agenda.
So, readers, suspend for the moment whether you like President Trump or dislike President Trump. Set aside whether you cheer or jeer the notion of a border wall.
Instead, think about this. If one chief executive can do it with "emergency" powers, so can another. What if some other president declared a climate emergency and ordered coal mines and gasoline refineries shuttered? Or declared a humanitarian emergency and threw open all U.S. borders? Or declared a hunger emergency and nationalized food distribution? Or declared a violence emergency to grab guns?
Far-fetched? Who knows? If an "emergency" is defined as whatever a president says it is, and checks and balances are largely moot because Congress abdicated its authority, what's to stop a rogue with authoritarian designs?
Our advice, for all Americans: Read the Constitution, and defend it.