Editorial: Border wall is no emergency

Congress should deny the president’s emergency declaration, and Republicans should be wary of setting a precedent they could regret.
Border wall prototypes stand in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border, seen from Tijuana. Congress didn’t give President Donald Trump the wall funding he wanted, so he declared an emergency. [AP file photo by Daniel Ochoa de Olza]
Border wall prototypes stand in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border, seen from Tijuana. Congress didn’t give President Donald Trump the wall funding he wanted, so he declared an emergency. [AP file photo by Daniel Ochoa de Olza]
Published February 19

It is not a national emergency just because President Donald Trump didn’t get his way on the border wall, and the president is putting at risk up to $177 million in projects at Florida’s military bases that he could shift and waste on a wall Congress has refused to fund. Congress should pass legislation aimed at blocking this power grab, and Republicans who support Trump’s abuse of executive authority should remember that the next time it is used this way they may not like the president or the issue.

There is no national emergency on the U.S. border with Mexico. There is a humanitarian crisis, one of Trump’s making and one that isn’t solved by what he is doing. In issuing his order, the president claims that “the southern border is a major entry point for criminals, gang members and illicit narcotics.” But illegal drugs that come from Mexico are mostly smuggled through legal checkpoints, and apprehensions at the border are down; Border Patrol apprehensions on the Mexican border are a mere quarter of what they were when the 21st century dawned. Only a fraction of undocumented migrants are caught at the southern border. The vast majority arrive legally and then simply overstay their visas. A wall fixes none of this.

An emergency is a crisis that demands immediate action. Yet Trump acknowledged, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this (emergency order), but I’d rather do it much faster.” What’s the national security crisis again?

Trump supporters who claim it is routine for presidents to declare states of emergency elide the truth. In fact, Trump’s declaration is the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that a president has used such an order to authorize emergency military action — in this case, shifting $3.6 billion in defense money to build a wall and starve other worthier projects, including at MacDill Air Force Base. The White House also would grab $601 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund and up to $2.5 billion from Department of Defense drug-seizure funds that were planned for counter-drug activities.

No one is for open borders. Congress has expressly voted not to squander money on a wall even as it supports reasonable measures to secure the border. Trump is invoking his powers under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which lets a president define an emergency as he sees fit. But the act also anticipated that a majority of the Congress could deny the president that power. A later Supreme Court opinion said a president could veto such a measure, which would require a two-thirds congressional majority to override, and Trump has said he would be happy to make this his first veto.

A coalition of 16 states (not Florida, of course) sued the president in Federal District Court in San Francisco on Monday, arguing he lacks the power to divert military and other funds because it is Congress, not the president, that controls spending. Even while the president’s order will face court challenges from all corners, Congress should act to assert its constitutional power of the purse, to agree that there is no emergency and to tell the president that he has overstepped his authority.

The next president could be a Democrat who declares a national emergency to address climate change or gun violence. Republicans who support Trump’s declaration should be careful about setting a precedent they later could regret.

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