Tim Truzy has been a newspaper columnist and reporter. He has written about government, social, and other issues.
Presidents and Emergency Powers
The President of the U.S. is granted specific authority over certain aspects of government in Article II of the Constitution. However, during urgent events, the leader of the Executive branch may take prerogative actions. The president may claim the right to authority not specifically mentioned in the Constitution during a critical point, such as a national crisis. By definition, a national emergency can be thought of as a circumstance in which the government of a country acts in a manner considered unacceptable under normal conditions. Scholars often agree the framers of the Constitution placed these abilities in the Executive branch because the president and his cabinet can respond faster than Congress in dangerous situations.
Understanding the wide range of the president’s unspecified powers is essential for Americans and the globe. For this reason, I’ve worked with students and written about comprehending the three branches of the federal government of the United States. In this article, laws concerning national emergencies are included along with instances of presidential excess. Coincidentally, I've provided the most drastic and disturbing sixteen actions a president may execute in such times. Finally, I've mentioned considerations Americans should have about the ability of the president to act with emergency authority.
Presidential Abuse of Emergency Powers
Although extra-constitutional powers may be necessary for the national government to function properly, concerns about presidential over-reach are relevant. For example, with the outset of the Korean War, President Harry Truman (1884-1972), attempted to seize the steel mills of the country. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled he was exceeding presidential authority. Likewise, the highest court in America ruled President Richard Nixon (1913-1994), went beyond official duties by imposing a 10% tax on imports in order to move America off the gold standard. In other words, throughout time, the leader of the Executive branch has not backed down from calling upon emergency authority, and Americans should be aware of the potential consequences for the republic.
Top 16 Emergency Powers of the President of the United States
- Bank accounts can be frozen.
- Bans on biological or chemical agents can be lifted.
- Civil liberties, such as the right to a peaceful assembly, can be halted.
- The president can order incarcerations.
- Elections can be postponed indefinitely.
- Federal leases can be suspended when the country faces dangers.
- Foreign individuals can be ordered to leave the nation, and the borders can be closed.
- National resources can be ushered into play to confront a natural disaster.
- Sanctions pertaining to property and finances can be removed or initiated.
- Soldiers and naval vessels may be ordered to engage in combat during a crisis.
- The government can take control of the internet, radio, and TV because of a perilous matter, and production and distribution of goods can be seized.
- The military can be mobilized domestically in a crisis, martial law can be declared by the president.
- The leader of the Executive branch can launch a nuclear strike if necessary.
- The president may order an assassination resulting from an emergency
- The right of habeas corpus can be suspended as a consequence of crises.
- Transportation networks can be taken over by the government.
A Long Historical Debate about Emergency Actions
Indisputably, Article II of the U.S. Constitution contains language open to interpretation by presidents regarding executing the law “faithfully.” The debate has raged since the founding of the country. In fact, a disagreement in 1793 was based on emergency authority. President George Washington (1732-1799), declared America would remain neutral, avoiding the widening war in Europe. There was Congressional fury but votes were lacking. However, Congress has passed several laws clarifying executive authority in critical circumstances over the decades. Current legislation concerning emergency actions covers the following: public health, national security, natural disasters, and the economy. A few instances are given:
Laws Related to Emergency Powers of the President
- Emergency Banking Act: Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) pronounced a Bank Holiday in 1933 with this legislation stemming from the presidency of Woodrow Wilson in 1917.
- International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) of 1977: This legislation focuses on extraordinary and unusual threats to national security and/or the economy of the U.S. originating mainly from overseas. However, interpretations of what the law means have expanded. For instance, William Clinton used IEEPA to target Colombian drug dealers and their possessions. Sanctions usually are the emergency action presidents activate concerning this legislation, but Donald Trump claimed the right to impose tariffs on Mexico under IEEPA in 2019.
- National Emergencies Act of 1976: Once a president declares an emergency, procedures must be followed for Congress to terminate it. The Supreme Court ruled a veto-proof majority is required within the Legislative branch to end a crisis.
- Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988: Each president has declared emergencies about ten times to aid states coping with natural catastrophes like wildfires and hurricanes.
- Public Health Act of 1944: Barack Obama proclaimed a national crisis pertaining to a deadly flu virus while Donald Trump used similar authority to combat a substance abuse epidemic.
- War Powers Act of 1973: This law is also known as the War Powers Resolution. The law states the president cannot send troops into conflict without Congress declaring war. Alleged violations include: William Clinton bombing Kosovo in 1999, and Barack Obama attacking Libya in 2011.
The Future and Emergency Authority
Curbing emergency executive powers has been challenging. Primarily, courts routinely support the president’s authority regarding urgent conditions. Moreover, constitutional scholars believe Congress has ceded some power to the Executive branch, destabilizing the check and balance system. Furthermore, the Presidential Emergency Actions Documents (PEAD) are authorizations at the Department of Justice which guide the president during extreme countrywide calamities. These papers are not laws but have the potential to limit Americans’ freedoms. Without question, the U.S. president has broad ranging powers in critical times.
In fact, the president has over 130 provisions to use once a national emergency has been announced. Today, about thirty national crises are active in America. After an intelligence committee reported rights were abridged by living in a permanent state of emergency during the 1970s, Congress attempted to shrink the number of crises. Nevertheless, gathering data for the war on terror is one factor which has shifted the scale in the Executive branch’s favor over the last thirty years. For instance, the Patriot Act of 2001 enhances the president’s ability to spy on terrorists and citizens. In short, carefully scrutinizing and limiting presidential emergency actions is the best solution for keeping America a free country.
Quotes from Presidents about Emergency Actions
- Theodore Roosevelt: “While president I have been President, emphatically. … I have not cared a rap for the criticisms of those who spoke of my usurpation of power.”
- Richard Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
- Donald Trump: “Then, I have an Article II where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president, but I don’t even talk about that.”
Buchanan, B. (2013). Presidential power and accountability: Toward a presidential accountability system. New York: Routledge.
Edelson, C. (2013). Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror. University of Wisconsin Press.
Edelson, C. (2016). Power Without Constraint: The Post-9/11 Presidency and National Security. University of Wisconsin Press.
Mondale, W. F. (1975). The accountability of power: Toward a responsible Presidency. New York: D. McKay.