If Congress lets this horse out of the barn, it’s not coming back.
On Friday, after weeks of dropping hints, President Trump said he was declaring a “national emergency” as an unprecedented new way to fund the wall he’s desperate to build at the southern border — a gambit that requires the House and Senate to surrender some of the constitutional power they’ve guarded for more than 200 years.
It’ll take a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress to prevent Trump’s power grab — a vote that lawmakers concerned with their own prerogatives ought to muster.
By declaring a “national emergency” at the border, Trump triggers a formal designation that allows him to shift funds from other government spending programs for wall construction. How much money, and from which programs, were still to be determined. But more than likely, it’ll be coming from military or antidrug programs.
The Constitution makes clear that only Congress can decide how public money is spent, and lawmakers explicitly, repeatedly declined Trump’s demands that they fund his pet project at the border. Trump’s announcement Friday is a blatant effort to circumvent Congress and expand executive authority.
He’s taking advantage of longstanding loopholes that let presidents redirect money in emergency situations. Until now, presidents generally abided by common-sense definitions of emergencies: sudden crises like hurricanes, epidemics, terrorist attacks, or international confrontations.
If Trump is allowed to characterize the border situation as an “emergency,” though, then anything can be an emergency — and an excuse for a future president to spend public money unfettered by Congressional directives.
It’s a two-pronged threat: Allowing the president to divert money into a program Congress didn’t authorize also means he can take money away from ones that it did. If Congress cares about its power, it shouldn’t look kindly on either move.
Partisan differences over immigration policy shouldn’t cloud how Americans perceive Trump’s maneuver on Friday. To many Americans, illegal border crossings are a legitimate problem. But Congress should view this as a question not of immigration but of separation of powers. Even supporters of hard-line immigration policies ought to be able to see how for the president to label the border an emergency renders the term meaningless.
Congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, promptly blasted the declaration. But Trump’s actions also bother some Republicans, including Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Susan Collins. GOP critics have warned that a future Democratic president could use the precedent to declare an emergency over climate change or gun violence. As Democrats learned when they watered down the Senate’s filibuster rule a decade ago, what goes around comes around.
The declaration is sure to provoke legal challenges, and federal courts could conceivably set it aside. But Congress shouldn’t count on that outcome, or hide behind third-party litigants to uphold the separation of powers for them. Using “emergencies” to amass executive power is inconsistent with the whole system of checks and balances. And once broadened, executive authority rarely narrows.
To safeguard its own power, and uphold the Constitutional order, the House and Senate should rescind the emergency declaration and preserve the principle that they, not the president, have the last word on the public purse.