Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the threat of President Donald Trump that, should the Democrats refuse to fund the wall, he is preparing to declare a national emergency to build it unilaterally. As I discuss below, I believe that such a declaration should be opposed by Congress in defense of its inherent constitutional function over the federal purse. I do not see the compelling basis to declare an emergency given the available data on illegal crossings on the Southern border. However, I disagree with those who have argued that such a declaration would be unconstitutional.
Here is the column:
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story once marveled, “How easily men satisfy themselves that the Constitution is exactly what they wish it to be.” If Story returned to life today, he would find these to be familiar times, as politicians and pundits have decided that the Constitution bars an action by President Trump, even when they reached the diametrically opposite conclusion on similar actions taken by President Obama during his term.
In the latest “constitutional crisis” declared on Capitol Hill, Democrats are adamant that they will not fund the signature pledge of Trump to build a border wall. In response, Trump has threatened to start construction unilaterally under his emergency powers if Congress refuses to yield to his demand for more than $5 billion. Critics turned to the Constitution and found clear authority against Trump. Representative Adam Schiff, Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, and many others denounced such a move as flagrantly unconstitutional.
The concern is well founded even if the conclusion is not. Congress has refused the funds needed for the wall, so Trump is openly claiming the right to unilaterally order construction by declaring a national emergency. On its face, that order would undermine the core role of Congress in our system of checks and balances. I happen to agree that an emergency declaration to build the wall is unwise and unnecessary. However, the declaration is not unconstitutional. Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, insists that Trump “does not have the power to execute” this order because “if Harry Truman could not nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president does not have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion dollar wall on the border.”
The problem is Trump does have that power because Congress gave it to him. Schiff is referring to the historic case of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company versus Charles Sawyer, in which the Supreme Court rejected the use of inherent executive powers by President Truman to seize steel mills during a labor dispute. He wanted to claim a national security emergency if steel production halted during the Korean War. In a powerful check on executive authority, the Supreme Court rejected his rationale for unilateral action. The Supreme Court was correct. But that was in 1952.
More than two decades later, Congress expressly gave presidents the authority to declare such emergencies and act unilaterally. The 1976 National Emergencies Act gives presidents sweeping authority as well as allowance in federal regulations to declare an “immigration emergency” to deal with an “influx of aliens which either is of such magnitude or exhibits such other characteristics that effective administration of the immigration laws of the United States is beyond the existing capabilities” of immigration authorities “in the affected area or areas.” The basis for such an invocation generally includes the “likelihood of continued growth in the magnitude of the influx,” rising criminal activity, as well as high “demands on law enforcement agencies” and “other circumstances.”
Democrats have not objected to use of this authority regularly by past presidents, including roughly 30 such emergencies that continue to this day. Other statutes afford additional emergency powers. Indeed, a report by the Congressional Research Service in 2007 stated, “Under the powers delegated by such statutes, the president may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”
Congress spent decades yielding authority to the executive branch. When it agreed with the president, such mighty authority was even celebrated. But now, consider the objections from Representative Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He has declared that it would be “profoundly inappropriate for the president of the United States to circumvent the legislative branch and single handedly, against the will of the American people and the American Congress, put up a wall.”
This is a curious statement from one of many lawmakers who supported Obama when he openly circumvented Congress on immigration reforms. Obama ordered agencies to stop enforcing some federal laws and used executive orders to do precisely what Congress refused to do. When Obama declared in a State of the Union address that he would circumvent Congress if it failed to approve his immigration reforms, Democrats cheered at the notion of their own circumvention, if not obsolescence.
Likewise, Castro and his colleagues supported Obama when he ordered the payment of billions out of the Treasury into ObamaCare, after being denied the funds by Congress. These same Democrats were largely silent when Obama attacked Libya without a declaration of war or legislative authorization. Obama funded the Libyan war out of money slushing around in the Pentagon, without a specific appropriation. I represented lawmakers who opposed the Libyan war. I also served as attorney for the entire House of Representatives in successfully opposing the ObamaCare payments. Most Democrats opposed both these lawsuits.
Congress can act to stop circumvention under the National Emergencies Act. Trump must notify Congress of his declaration and detail the powers being claimed under that law. Congress could and should negate the declaration with a vote of both chambers. However, that does not make the declaration unconstitutional. Any declaration would create a myriad of legal issues and likely face an immediate legal challenge. Two questions that a court would have to consider are the source of the authority and the source of any funds. The latter is where some challenges could arise.
Congress gave Trump such authority in the National Emergencies Act, augmenting claims of inherent authority, but the source of the funds could be more challenging. Under two laws in Title 10 and Title 33 of the United States Code, he could seek to use unobligated funds originally set aside for military construction projects, or divert funds from Army civil works projects. There are limitations on the use of such money, and there could be strong challenges to the use of unobligated funds in other areas. There is money there to start but not nearly enough to finish such a wall without proper appropriation. Recall Obama funded the undeclared war in Libya out of money slushing around in the Pentagon, without the new strict constitutionalists objecting from the Democratic side of the aisle.
Courts generally have deferred to the judgments of presidents on the basis for such national emergencies, and dozens of such declarations have been made without serious judicial review. Indeed, many of the very same politicians and pundits declared the various travel ban orders to be facially unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court ultimately lifted the injunctions of lower courts. Moreover, Trump does not have to ultimately prevail to achieve part of his objective. Even if a court were to enjoin construction, the declaration could afford Trump the political cover to end the government shutdown, as the issue moved its way through the courts.
While the matter could be expedited to move through the courts in a matter of months, the government could seek to slow litigation to push any final decision into 2020. There are compelling arguments against funding the entire wall demanded by Trump, although some added border barriers clearly are warranted. However, one can oppose an emergency declaration without claiming that it is facially unconstitutional. It is not.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. He served as counsel for members opposing United States involvement in the Libyan war and as attorney for the House of Representatives in their challenge to the unappropriated use of federal funds under ObamaCare. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.