The United States faces an enormous emergency, but you will not find it at the border. Now, President Trump, of all people, has paved the way to finally tackling that crisis. Maybe something positive can come out of all of this.
During the government shutdown of December 2018 – January 2019, with Trump finding himself increasingly cornered, the White House began floating the idea that the president would declare a national emergency to get the money for his border wall. By the time Trump signed the bill to temporarily reopen the government in late January, Trump sat in a worse bargaining position than when he started. It seemed highly unlikely that Congress could arrive at a compromise in the following weeks which would appease Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion to build a wall. Considering that Trump is a narcissistic bully with his ego on the line, it seemed inevitable that the only way out of the impasse Trump had created for himself was to declare a national emergency. On February 15, 2019, Trump did just that.
We had warning the day before, when both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump would simultaneously sign the bill to fund the government and declare a national emergency to build his wall. In breaking the news to the Senate, McConnell said, “I have indicated to [President Trump] that I’m going…to support the National Emergency Declaration.”
Well, Mr. McConnell, to use your own words from 2013, “If you want to play games, set another precedent that you’ll no doubt come to regret, [I] say [that] you’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”
For context: by 2013, Senate Democrats were fed up. Senate Republicans had used the filibuster rules to block judicial nomination after nomination from President Obama. So, the Democrats changed the rules so that non-SCOTUS judicial nominations could no longer be filibustered. . In response, McConnell uttered the words above to Senate Democrats, then used the rule change as precedent when he led Senate Republicans to vote to remove the filibuster from Supreme Court nominations during the confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch in 2017. Whether or not what Democrats did in eliminating the judicial filibuster was justified, McConnell and other Congressional Republicans were able to respond to that action in kind without significant political consequences.
Currently, the National Emergencies Act allows the president to assume a vast array of powers. The act has been invoked far more frequently than most people are aware, but usually has been triggered in response to foreign action, rather than to solve domestic issues (PDF). With respect to the border wall, Trump has been making a fictitious case for building his border wall on the idea that immigrants approaching the southern border and drug trafficking constitute an extraordinary threat from outside the country requiring a declaration of a national emergency. In his press conference to announce the declaration, Trump claimed, “We’ve got to get rid of drugs, and gangs and people. It’s an invasion. We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country that we stop, but it’s very hard to stop. With a wall, it would be very easy.”
While Trump wants to paint his actions as a justified response to a foreign threat, he is just plain lying. Drugs are a problem in the United States, but Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security have all said that drugs largely arrive in through legal ports of entry. Far from an invasion, border crossings and apprehensions have declined over the last few decades. Most illegal immigrants in the United States arrived legally and then overstayed their visas. As for crime, studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than those born in the United States. U.S. citizens make up the majority of the dreaded MS-13 gang with which Trump likes to scare people. The things Trump claims will be easily stopped by his border wall either don’t exist or would largely not enter the country by crossing such a barrier. The crisis is fake; the emergency is non-existent.
Many scholars argue Trump can legally make his emergency declaration. More debatable is whether Congress or the courts would or could successfully stop such a move. The invocation of the Act, under the current circumstances, constitutes a massive overreach of executive authority. Especially given that the main reason for doing so does not truly arise from any so-called emergency at the border, but rather the refusal of Congress to open the purse strings for Trump’s vanity project. Trump is making an end run around Congress’ Constitutionally defined powers of determining how money will be spent. At his press conference, Trump admitted as much, “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster,” referring to the wall
Such overreach threatens the Constitutional balance of powers upon which our entire government rests. None of that really matters to Trump. Under the broad presidential emergency powers, Trump will finally be free to act as the authoritarian he has always wanted to be. Based on White House statements, and the powers under the Act and related laws, Trump could deploy troops on U.S. soil, something normally barred by posse comitatus, to seize property, to reallocate funds as he wishes, and to arrest and detain citizen and non-citizen alike without much cause. To allow that to happen not only grants vast power to a single individual; it also establishes a pattern of the executive branch seizing extraordinary powers on the flimsiest of excuses any time it feels thwarted by Congress. The idea would completely undermine the entire concept of our democracy.
But while there is no national emergency at our borders, a true emergency exists throughout our nation and the world: climate change. We have been repeatedly warned that time is running out; that we are rapidly reaching the point of no return. Already in this country, growing seasons have begun to shift, ecosystems have been damaged, and we face increasingly numerous and increasingly costly natural disasters. This threatens everyone in this country, and, all information we have says we must act immediately to stave off far worse calamities. According to the IPCC, we have 12 years to act to limit the effects of the disaster. Further, the U.S. has been one of the biggest contributors to anthropogenic climate change. We made this mess. Relying on other nations to fix it won’t suffice. The U.S. has to join in, or our country and the entire world suffer. If that is not a true national emergency, what is?
Climate change is more important than thwarting terrorist plots, fighting foreign wars, or shifting global trade in our favor. Domestically we face serious crises regarding opioids, lack of access to healthcare, income inequality, decaying infrastructure, and gun violence. Climate change far surpasses all of these. What good would solving any of those problems do if our cities are flooded and our countryside barren? No food; nowhere to live; no way to survive.
While the National Emergencies Act is not used for natural disasters, the damage we face from climate change is not some unforeseen act of the elements, but rather nature’s foreseeable responses to human actions. We declare emergencies in the aftermath of natural disasters, but the goal of addressing climate change is to prevent future irreversible calamity.
Thus, if there is a threat to our nation that would merit executive overreach such as President Trump has done, it would be to move swiftly and decisively to address climate change. Given that not just individual lives but the entire planet are at stake, it is morally imperative to act on this. Given that our nation means nothing without people and some quality of life, our democracy obviously is in peril as well.
Even the proposed wall funding involved here would best be served addressing climate change than any foreign crisis, real or imagined. Trump indicated that he would use his emergency powers to appropriate military discretionary funds to build his wall, corroborating earlier reporting that the Department of Defense was reviewing available discretionary funds. Trump is currently aiming his sights at the department’s military construction budget, which, according to earlier reporting,may include portions of the Army Corps of Engineers budget allocated for disaster relief efforts, including for Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria and for California flood and wildfire management. Climate change triggered all of those disasters and will trigger many more. If we are going to divert funds from people in desperate need, it is far better it be to address the underlying reason for that need, i.e., climate change, than throwing the money at an ineffectual border wall.
As Trump seizes emergency powers over a non-existent problem, he only brings into focus the very real emergency we face. And he offers his successor a way to prevent Republicans in Congress from halting efforts to address a catastrophe of which science has warned us for decades.
Regardless of whether Trump succeeds in his bid to build the wall through emergency powers, he has made clear that any Democratic president who follows him should immediately declare a national emergency to take on climate change. Unlike with border security, climate change is a real emergency with a rapidly closing window for action. Given the retrograde motion of Trump’s presidency on this front, the task of addressing climate change has become all the more massive, requiring an immediate commitment of maximum effort. Unlike Trump’s border wall, declaring a national emergency to address climate change is both justified and just.
Given the immediacy of the climate crisis, its rapidly escalating costs to our society even now, the amount of effort and resources which will have to be thrown at the problem, and the growing pressure from the younger members of our society to address a horror not of their making, but of which they will bear the brunt, there really should not be any doubt. Should Trump declare a national emergency to get his border wall, then Democrats should throw Mitch McConnell’s words back at Republicans: “You’ll regret [it], and you may regret [it] a lot sooner than you think.” By the time the GOP truly begins to regret Trump’s emergency declaration, the rest of the nation, and the world, will perhaps be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the United States finally recognizes the emergency imperiling us all and has fully committed its vast might toward addressing the problem.