What Was the National Emergency Act?

(Last Updated On: March 17, 2020)

What Was the National Emergency Act?

In 2020, amidst the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak, Donald Trump declared a national emergency. Nobody was really surprised by the event, but at the same time, many were left wondering just what exactly that meant. What is a national emergency anyway? What kind of powers does it transfer to the president? To better understand these questions, let’s take a look back at the National Emergency Act.

The National Emergency Act

So turns out, America went a pretty long time before codifying any presidential powers during an emergency. Somehow we made it until 1976 without ever clearly defining emergency status in the country. Given that America far predates that, you’d think we would have figured out how… Emergencies work. Especially since America is basically founded off of the back of a war with England. 

But we digress. The first time emergency proclamations were ever formally declared was in 1917. This was under the Woodrow administration and over some maritime shipping shenanigans that led to the US Shipping Board.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the presidents who followed him took the power of making emergency declarations without any limitations. Ergo they could declare an emergency without saying what that meant at all–giving them the power to essentially bypass Congress. 

This led to some fun stuff like when the Senate discovered a national emergency declared in 1933 was actually still in effect in 1973. The emergency? A bank hoarding some gold. An emergency was also declared in 1950 over the Korean War. It was still in effect in 1973 as well–despite US involvement in the conflict ending before the 1960s.

Suffice to say national emergency proclamations needed some limits, and so came the National Emergency Act in 1976.

What Did the National Emergency Act Do?

The National Emergency Act was in large part designed to keep the president from just bypassing Congress. So a big part of it outlined how exactly a national emergency is declared, and how Congress is notified. It also forces the emergency to have an outline for why it started and what conditions would end the emergency. And lastly, it gives Congress the power to terminate a national emergency through a vote.

What Powers Does the President Have?

During a national emergency, the President is granted a lot of power. That’s probably why President Trump said the COVID-19 emergency would “unleash the full power of the federal government.”

There’s a healthy list of 136 powers a state of emergency gives the president, though 13 of them need further approval by Congress. The other 123 just… Go into effect.

Of the 13 requiring Congressional approval, it’s pretty nutty. We’re glad more than one person has to look over these though. Since they range from suspending laws and bans on biological/chemical weapons (you know, violating international law), and suspending laws on human testing. Also drafting people regardless of whether or not they can be drafted under Selective Service.

Further Reading: What Is the Draft?

But of the remaining powers, the president is in fact authorized to do things that would ordinarily be illegal. Some of those can easily be misused in respect to the emergency. For example, George W. Bush used the 9/11 state of emergency to send troops to the Iraq War–despite its lack of direct involvement with the 9/11 attacks. The super tangential connection was all Bush needed, we guess.

The president can also suspend a lot of communications–like the phones or the internet. Something that may have made sense in the 1930s when there was no modern internet–but is now a threat to contemporary democracy.

If you want to see the full list of 136 powers given to the president, you can look here

Emergency time means emergency signs, can you identify these emergency signs?

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Kyler
About Kyler 165 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle. He currently spends most of his time hitting the university grind while drinking black coffee like water.