USA Today isn’t traditionally cited as one of the more hard-hitting journalism outlets in the country, but they ran a thought-provoking piece on Wednesday. Called “America’s Perpetual State of Emergency,” the article took a close look at the trend we’ve indulged since the 1970s in giving emergency powers to the president.
It started in 1976 with the passing of the National Emergencies Act. Since that time, presidents have declared “states of emergency” at least 52 times, and that doesn’t even include declarations of disaster following hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like. Many of these “emergencies” have no expiration date, and at least 30 of them remain in effect today.
USA Today outlined a few examples, starting with Jimmy Carter’s 1979 declaration of emergency in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis. That emergency status remains in effect. The same goes for the state of emergency declared by Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. It has been renewed six times by Obama, and it gives him the power to wage the war on terror while rarely consulting Congress.
One of the biggest problems with this issue is that the original National Emergencies Act included a provision requiring Congress to vote on an emergency declaration within six months. That has not happened once in the subsequent thirty-five years. Therefore, the law becomes an opportunity for the president to use any crisis available to seize more power for himself. In the immediate aftermath of such a crisis, said power can be necessary to expedite a response. The sluggishness of our legislative branch is well documented. However, the fact that we leave these emergency declarations in a state of perpetual existence is a real problem.
It’s easy to get frantic about this kind of thing, but I do think we need to examine the ease with which we casually hand off additional powers to the President of the United States. Our Constitution provides the executive branch with plenty of power right from the start, but the greatest strength of our government is in its checks and balances. With Congress and the Supreme Court, the three branches of government prevent any one ideology from gaining too much influence. It doesn’t matter if it’s George W. Bush or Barack Obama, we weaken our democracy every time we increase the powers of the presidency.
It’s a difficult debate to have without devolving into partisanship. If we simply ask, “Does Obama have too much power?” the liberals claim that it’s just Republicans complaining as usual. The same holds true when the situation is reversed. But this isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue. This is about protecting the checks and balances prescribed at the dawn of our country.
Unfortunately, history gives both sides ample room to play around with the facts. You can go all the way back to George Washington to find examples of the executive branch claiming more authority for itself than is specifically outlined in the Constitution. But historical precedence doesn’t always make a thing right. And with a president in office now who thinks nothing of circumventing Congress when it suits his needs, it’s more important than ever that we have this conversation.