PD Editorial: Trump’s ‘emergency’ sets a dangerous precedent

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It isn’t easy to get Democrats and Republicans on the same page, but President Donald Trump may have pulled it off with his fantastical declaration of a national emergency on the southern border.

As expected, Democrats and their allies already are in court trying to stop the president from diverting money appropriated for legitimate national security needs to his pet project — a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, will seek to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration.

And, if their initial reactions are any indication, many Republicans will join them.

“He is usurping congressional authority,” GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told the New York Times.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said “extraconstitutional executive actions are wrong, no matter which party does them.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, told the Washington Post it would hypocritical for Republicans to support Trump’s emergency declaration after criticizing President Barack Obama’s use of executive power. “I don’t believe in situational principles,” he said.

The principle at stake here is the separation of powers.

Congress, under the U.S. Constitution, controls the purse strings. And a bipartisan spending bill, approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, appropriated $22.5 billion for border security, including $1.375 billion for barriers or, if you prefer, walls.

During his Friday news conference, Trump acknowledged that Congress gave him “billions and billions” for, among other things, 1,200 new Border Patrol officers, new aircraft, sensor systems and technology for ports of entry and stretches of border in between. “On the wall,” he complained, “they skimped.”

Trump could have had $25 billion for his wall a year ago, but he was unable or unwilling to close a deal that included protection for Dreamers, the undocumented young people who grew up in the United States after being brought here by illegal immigrant parents. He canceled an Obama era program protecting them, saying it was an abuse of executive power.

He, in turn, abused executive power to divert $6.6 billion from approved projects to the wall.

The case for an emergency at the border is weak. Illegal border crossing between ports of entry declined from 1.6 million in 2000 to 400,000 in 2017, with a small increase last year, according to the government’s own accounting. The number of people living illegally in the United States has declined. And, as Vice President Mike Pence wrote recently in USA Today, most illegal drugs enter the United States through ports of entry.

But if it’s a priority for the president, and he wasn’t satisfied with the money appropriated by Congress, he had a constitutionally viable option. He could have vetoed the bill.

A veto carried political risks — another unpopular government shutdown or a veto override if enough members of the House and Senate were unwilling to risk another shutdown.

His emergency declaration should be treated as a threat to constitutional norms. If it stands, it’s an avenue for presidents to divert money from congressioanlly approved programs to projects rejected by Congress.

Some legal analysts say the Supreme Court is unlikely to overrule a presidential emergency declaration, but Congress can — and should — defend its constitutional perogatives. Congress has the power to override a national emergency declaration and, unlike routine legislation, the rules require a Senate vote if the House delivers a resolution reversing Trump’s order.

To do anything less is an invitation to future presidents from either party to twist the National Emergency Act for their own political purposes.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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