The National Emergencies Act.

            In 1933, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed the right to declare a national emergency without reference to any law, without Congressional approval or oversight, and without setting any limits to what he could do or for how long he could do it.  Looking around at a country with thousands of bank failures, tens of thousands of business bankruptcies, an unemployment rate of 25 percent, and farmers in extreme poverty, most people went “Looks like an emergency to me.”  Other emergencies came along in the next forty years.[1] 

            As part of the Watergate era reaction against the “Imperial Presidency,”[2] in 1973 Congress passed the “National Emergencies Act.”  The Act, as amended, authorizes the President to activate emergency provisions of laws through an emergency declaration.  When activating the emergency provisions, the President must specify the provisions being activated and notify Congress.  An activation expires if the President declares the emergency terminated, or does not renew the emergency annually, or if Congress passes a joint resolution.[3] 

            A president can do a lot with emergency powers.  There are 123 different laws that contain emergency provisions that can be invoked simply by a presidential emergency declaration.  For example, s/he can suspending any Clean Air Act implementation plan or excess emissions penalty upon petition of a state governor or authorize military construction projects and use any existing defense appropriations to pay for such projects. 

            In the immediate aftermath of passage of the National Emergencies Act, presidents were cautious about declaring emergencies.[4]  Jimmy Carter declared two; Ronald Reagan declared six and George H. W. Bush declared four.  All related to foreign policy matters, chiefly economic sanctions.[5]  Then the dikes of self-restraint broke with the arrival of the Boomer presidents.[6]  Bill Clinton declared seventeen; George W. Bush declared twelve; Barack Obama declared thirteen; Donald Trump declared seven; and Joe Biden has declared six.  All of President Clinton’s emergency declarations dealt with foreign policy issues, again mostly imposing sanctions and the same was true of President George H.W. Bush.  Essentially the same was true of President Obama, but a couple of declarations reflected the emergence of new problems.  One declaration dealt with the H1N1 flu pandemic, while a second addressed international cyber-crime.  President Trump might be said to have extended the line begun by his predecessor.  Most of his declarations dealt with sanctions (chiefly directed against China), but he also declared emergencies in response to Covid-19 and the torrent of illegal immigrants on the southern border.  President Biden has maintained the sanctions on China, while adding ones on Russia. 

            Traditionally, national emergency declarations have dealt with foreign policy.  Recently, pandemic diseases threatening all Americans have been added to the list.  Not yet partisan goals. 


[1] The Korean War, inflation in 1971, postal workers walking off the job, that sort of thing

[2] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (1973).  Schlesinger was a former Imperial scribe.  I’m sure many people thought of that before me.  Doesn’t make it less true. 

[3] See: National Emergencies Act – Wikipedia  Well, where were you going to look if you got curious? 

[4] See: List of national emergencies in the United States – Wikipedia  See also: War Powers Resolution – Wikipedia  The evangelist Billy Graham once responded to the observation that being “saved” didn’t seem to last for many people.  “Yes, it’s like taking a bath,” he said. 

[5] Particularly on Iran, an American bete noire since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

[6] “No surprise there” you’re thinking. 

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