What Is a National Emergency?

(Last Updated On: June 11, 2019)
What Is a National Emergency?

While the term “national emergency” is frequently bandied about with respect to natural disasters and, occasionally, incidents of violence, most people are not entirely clear on how a national emergency is defined or the specific additional powers it provides.

What Is a National Emergency?

Generally speaking, a national emergency is a situation in which a government is given additional authority in order to help during times of disaster, civil unrest, or armed conflict.  

In the United States, declaring a national emergency grants the President more power to take action independently, when they otherwise might have needed to receive the support of Congress first.

These additional powers have been defined by Congress, and are outlined in the National Emergency Act. The idea behind this act is that in times of serious peril, it may be necessary for the President to act quickly without being hampered by bureaucratic processes.

Congress can end an emergency declaration at any time by signing a joint resolution.

History of the National Emergencies Act

The National Emergencies Act, as currently formed, was passed in 1976, summarizing and clarifying all previous resolutions regarding the President’s authority in emergency situations. However, the first declaration of a national emergency took place way back in 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson intervened to increase the country’s shipping capacity to enable it to meet the needs of the population.

From President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s banking crisis emergency in 1933, to Nixon’s inflation emergency in 1971, many emergencies were declared with regard to specific issues despite invoking much broader powers and facing no time limit restrictions. In fact, a 1973 Senate investigation found that four past national emergencies technically remained in effect. The 1976 act was brought forth by Congress in order to better define the powers and timelines granted through declaration of a national emergency.

Think you can name all the US Presidents?

Presidential Powers During a National Emergency

Over time, Congress has outlined 136 unique powers that are available to the President in the case of a national emergency. Thirteen of them require Congressional declaration, but the rest can be implemented independently. They are intended to give the President the freedom to react in the best interests of the country when necessary. These powers cover an extremely broad range of areas including military, terrorism, land use, public health, agriculture and natural disasters, just to name a few.

Some seem extremely dangerous, such as the one that allows the President to block any financial transaction involving a foreign national, or the one that allows them to authorize testing of chemical weapons on humans. Others are almost pointlessly trivial and strangely specific, such as the one that allows the Secretary of the Interior to close down the Fort McHenry National Monument without support of Congress.

Since 1976, Presidents have invoked national emergency powers 58 times.

Limitations of the National Emergencies Act

While the general concept behind the National Emergencies Act is to allow the President to act independently within the greater scope of government, it technically allows Congress to nullify an emergency declaration by passing a joint resolution. However, the President still has the power to veto the resolution unless both the Senate and House of Representatives agree with a 2/3 majority, something that would rarely be possible in today’s climate of partisan politics.

It is possible that a national emergency could be stopped by the Supreme Court if it were deemed unconstitutional, but that process typically takes a lot of time and there is no guarantee they would vote to cancel it. The last time it happened was in 1952, when Harry Truman attempted to enact a national emergency to nationalize the steel industry, famously stating that “the President has the power to keep the country from going to hell”. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Possibly the strangest of all, there is still no mandated time limits on national emergencies, requiring only that the President renew them annually. Today there are 33 different national emergencies in effect going back as far as the Iran sanctions of 1979. Meanwhile, President Trump has declared five of these national emergencies himself, including his contentious border wall funding emergency, which was blocked by Congress but without the necessary 2/3 majority to avoid a presidential veto. It is expected to meet strong opposition in the courts, however, and is likely to be an ongoing conflict.

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