So You Want a National Emergency?

MADDI LARMORE: The phrase “national emergency” seems to raise red flags, and rightly so, because of a commonly held understandings of what an “emergency” really is. But the declaration of such by the President of the United States is more common than you may think. In fact, the United States is currently coping with thirty-one national emergencies. Who knew things were really that bad?

They’re not. The reality is rooted in the technicalities of the National Emergencies Act of 1976, signed into law by then-President Gerald Ford. The purpose of the act was to more explicitly define the conditions and terms under which a president can exercise executive power, and establish an avenue through which Congress may oversee such power. Originally, the act intended for declared emergencies to expire after one year, but both Congress and the president have the power to renew the declaration, and it has become custom to renew national emergencies almost automatically without hearings and without regard for whether the initial situation is still unraveling. 

The award for longest-running National Emergency goes to the Iran hostage crisis, deemed a national emergency by President Jimmy Carter in November 1979. But there is no need to search for the latest update to the emergency: The hostages were released 38 years ago. Other national crises have included efforts to impose sanctions on Sudan (1997), Syria (2004), Belarus (2006), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2006) and Libya (2011), to name a few. In other words, the majority of national emergencies have been quasi-executive orders in attempts to unilaterally respond to an ongoing conflict or flagrant human rights violation abroad. 

 Congress has conventionally deferred to the president a degree of latitude in executive decision-making, most specifically in regards to foreign policy or in the face of a perceived threat such as in the aftermath of 9/11. Nevertheless, Congress has an obligation, as prescribed by the Constitution and further clarified by the National Emergencies Act, to serve as a check on executive power. It must continue do so in a meaningful way, regardless of who is in office or what the alleged emergency may be. While some exercises of emergency power impose little cost on American taxpayers such as targeted sanctions on suspected terrorists or conflict-inciting individuals in Cote d’Ivoire, more costly actions undermine Congress’ role as the appropriator of government funds. Historically, one of the greatest hallmarks of American democracy has been the separation of powers, but even more important is the checks on power we afford to these institutions. 

Jeff Cirillo