America is in a constant state of emergency; 30 separate ones, to be exact.
The state of perpetual crisis in the United States began with President Jimmy Carter in 1979, who declared a state for emergency after the 10th day of the Iranian hostage crisis.
It continues to this day, after 35 years.
President George W. Bush ordered a post-9/11 national emergency, renewed by President Barack Obama 6 times — the legal justification for the country’s war on terror.
USA Today reports that on Tuesday, Obama informed Congress he would extend another declared emergency. This extension is a holdover from the Bush years, because of “widespread violence and atrocities” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, adding that it poses an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. foreign policy.
The National Emergencies Act gives the president a range of additional executive powers, which Princeton University professor Kim Lane Scheppele likens to a “toggle switch.”
“When the president flips it, he gets new powers. It’s like a magic wand. And there are very few constraints about how he turns it on,” Scheppele tells USA Today reporter Gregory Korte.
In cases of public health emergency, like Ebola, the Act allows a range of actions, like giving hospitals more freedom to treat cases.
During his six years in office, Obama allowed only one emergency to expire, declaring nine new ones and extending 22 orders from his predecessors.
Congress passed the national Emergencies Act in 1976; since then, presidents invoked it a total of 53 times—not including natural disasters like floods and tornadoes. Of those 53, USA Today found that many are still in effect.
Although Congress delegated emergency powers to the president, the 1976 law provides no oversight. Each house of Congress is required to meet for an up or down vote within six months of an emergency, but it has never happened.
The result is emergencies that linger for years, even decades.
Under the Act, Presidents have broad and mostly unchecked powers. An article by attorney Patrick Thronson published last year in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, there are 160 separate laws give the president emergency powers, including rules that:
- Restructure the military, allowing foreign authority for members of the armed forces, conscripting veterans, overturning courts-martial and ordering military command of weather satellites.
- Suspend a variety of environmental laws, such as the ones banning the dumping of toxic and infectious medical waste.
- Circumvent federal contracting laws, allowing the government to buy and sell property with no-bid contracts.
- Allow Army, Navy and Air Force scientists to apply for unlimited secret patents.
Congress enacted all of these laws, providing broad presidential power, with the stroke of a pen.
“A lot of laws are passed like that,” Scheppele said. “So if a president is hunting around for additional authority, declaring an emergency is pretty easy.”
The National Emergencies Act does give Congress the power to overturn a presidential emergency declaration with resolutions passed by both houses — subject to veto by the president.
Over the 38 years of the Act, only one resolution was introduced to cancel a declared emergency.
Democrats introduced a resolution to cancel the Hurricane Katrina emergency in 2005, which gave President Bush the power to waive federal wage laws. Contractors working to rebuild New Orleans after the hurricane were not subject to the Davis-Bacon Act, a law requiring workers to be paid local prevailing wages.
Two months later, Bush himself revoked the emergency, after pressure from Congress.