What Makes an Emergency National?

The recent headlines in Canada have had me wondering about National Emergencies on this side of the line. I was very shocked to discover, in my initial search a Wikipedia page seventy plus entries long of national emergencies. When did these happen? Why didn’t I know about them?

Did you know it was a National Emergency that recently resulted in the transfer of all US-held assets of Da Afghanistan Bank to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York? Apparently it’s authorized by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the National Emergencies Act, as well as some of the United States Code. This is only the most recent “National Emergency” that Wikipedia lists, there are plenty of others, going back as far as 1917. It’s not entirely clear how many are active- Wikipedia says 40, ABC News listed 31 back in 2017, either way, the answer is a lot. Canada only has one at the moment.

I’ve griped before, about the difficulty in keeping track of the sheer volume of laws and regulations in the United States- so in some sense, it isn’t a surprise that we have a number of laws concerning emergencies of which I was unaware.

After President trump declared a National Emergency in 2019 in order to build a wall along the southern border, the Brennan Center published some tables outlining the powers that a President has in the event of a national emergency and the laws that grant them.

Their list of Emergency Framework Statues includes:

  • National Emergencies Act (1976)
  • Public Health Service Act (1944)
  • Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (1988)

The Brennan Center identified 123 statutory powers that become available to the president when he declares a national emergency; Wikipedia suggests that 500 federal laws take effect when a National Emergency is declared.

Interesting, but where is a national emergency defined? What is it? In the United States, there is no legal definition for National Emergency. It isn’t defined explicitly by law, which means it falls into the confusing category of something defined by argument, precedent, court rulings, and such. The President can declare one, as can congress, and governors can petition the president to declare one.

So, with no clear definition to determine when a National Emergency Starts- perhaps we can at least find out when one ends?

In the National Emergencies Act the emergency ends when a law is passed by congress saying it ends, or when the president declares that it is ended. Also, Congress must, within six months, vote to determine whether the emergency will end. If no one ends it- it will end a year from when it began, unless the president says that it will continue.

How do we have so many? Because sitting presidents keep renewing them. We don’t place a lot of constraints on the declaration of National Emergency, but arguably we also don’t grant the sort of sweeping powers that the Canadian Emergency Act does.

1 thought on “What Makes an Emergency National?”

  1. You say we don’t grant the same sweeping powers that Canada did for their emergency act. How do you know? And if our government no longer follows the rules or the Constitution, what do our laws matter? So far the mandates and even the viral emergency are incorrect and therefore illegal. So laws are being flouted and if they can be flouted once, they can keep doing that until they have us tied up in a neat little package just the way they want us. And our constitution and bill of rights and excessive laws be damned.


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