When President Donald Trump agreed to temporarily reopen the federal government after a partial shutdown that lasted five weeks, he didn’t give up his desire for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The president has continued to insist that there will be a wall one way or another, and on Feb. 15, he will either partially shut down the federal government again or force the funding of a wall via an emergency declaration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, remains adamant in her opposition to a wall. But Democrats aren’t the only ones who are troubled by Trump’s threat of an emergency declaration.
Some conservatives and libertarians have been warning that if Trump tries to bypass the federal government’s legislative branch (the Senate and the House of Representatives) in order to create a border wall through an executive order, it would set a dangerous precedent. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (a former Republican congressman) and Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano have stressed that if Trump does set such a precedent, what is to stop a Democratic president from trying to bypass Congress in that way in the future?
Here are some things that a hypothetical Democratic president could try to address via a declaration of emergency in the future.
1. Climate change
Conservatives and libertarians are often skeptical about climate change, while liberals and progressives will point out that numerous scientists all over the world realize that it is a painful reality. Hurricanes, tornados, floods, wildfires and blizzards were causing misery long before climate change, but thanks to climate change, extreme weather events are occurring more often. The situation is dire, and as Scarborough has pointed out, a hypothetical Democratic president—perhaps Sen. Kamala Harris—could declare that climate change is so severe a threat that it must be addressed via an emergency declaration if Congress won’t act.
Scarborough wasn’t saying that Harris would necessarily do such a thing; he was merely using her as a hypothetical in order to demonstrate that if Trump can go to extremes to promote his border wall, a Democratic president could go to similar extremes in the name of fighting climate change.
2. Health care
Unlike many of his colleagues at Fox News, Judge Andrew Napolitano has not been an obsequious Trump sycophant: he agrees with the president in some areas but will call him out when he believes Trump is overreaching—and using an emergency declaration to try to force the creation of a border wall, Napolitano has stressed, would be overreaching. Napolitano, in fact, has used the word “unconstitutional” to describe Trump’s idea, noting that a Democratic president could declare health care to be an emergency situation.
During a January 8 appearance on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends,” Napolitano explained, “If the president, frustrated by Congress, could declare a national emergency and go around Congress, we would have seen this before. Barack Obama would have declared a national emergency in health care and started spending money on insurance policies to keep people healthy. And obviously, he didn’t because he couldn’t.”
3. Gun control
Whenever a tragic mass shooting occurs, demands for tougher gun control legislation heat up—and the key word is “legislation.” Gun control legislation can be passed at the local, state or federal level. And historically, Republicans and Democrats have used the legislative process to address how much gun control they believe there should or shouldn’t be. But Trump’s critics on the right are arguing that if the president is able to push for his wall with a declaration of emergency rather than getting congressional funding, what is to stop a future Democratic president from promoting gun control via an emergency declaration?
If a mass shooting or a Columbine-like tragedy occurs, the hypothetical argument could go like this: guns are an emergency, and the executive branch needs to act immediately with or without Congress.
4. The national debt
How much Republicans are worried about the national debt usually depends on who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: if it’s a GOP president such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald Trump, they lack the deficit hawk mentality they expressed repeatedly when Barack Obama was president. So if, in the future, a hypothetical GOP Congress has enough veto-proof votes to pass legislation it wants, a hypothetical Democratic president could argue that the legislation is too costly and constitutes an emergency. If that GOP Congress had enough votes to override a presidential veto in that scenario, the Democratic president could argue that the national deficit is an emergency that warrants an emergency response.
Of course, many Democrats would argue that it would be unethical for a Democratic president to try to address climate change, health care reform, gun control or the national deficit via an emergency declaration—and that the legislative branch is the appropriate way to address those concerns. Checks and balances in the federal government exist for a reason even though Trump is forgetting that at the moment.