Donald Trump has declared a national emergency in an attempt to scrape funding together for his border wall project. Unfortunately for Republican lawmakers, the government’s coffers aren’t bottomless, and the money has to come from somewhere. So the president chose to divert more than $7 billion in funding from other programs. Trump’s money grab is an attempt to snatch $3.6 billion from military construction projects, such as building barracks for troops. Another $2.5 billion will be shunted from counternarcotics programs, and $600 million will come from a Treasury Department asset forfeiture fund—if, that is, a legal showdown doesn’t stop the emergency declaration in its tracks first.
While these spending numbers don’t seem massive, at least by governmental standards, they represent a disregard for the constitutionally mandated powers of the presidency and the will of the American people. Some 56 percent of people believe that using emergency powers to construct a border wall is unnecessary. Even the president himself has said he “didn’t need to do this.”
This emergency declaration—called a “power grab by a disappointed president” in a joint statement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—may have more far-reaching effects than the president’s previous bombastic ploys. No government document lays out rules for what qualifies as a national emergency. What the National Emergencies Act of 1976 does clarify is that, in his declaration, the president must specify which statutory power he will use. “Trump could conceivably use a national emergency to control communications systems—including the Internet—in addition to appropriating Department of Defense funds to build a wall along the southern border,” Indra Ekmanis writes for PRI’s The World.
Sixteen states, including New York and California, have filed suit against Trump in a challenge to his plan to misuse emergency powers to fund his border wall. If the national emergency survives the upcoming legal battle, it may set a dangerous precedent by monstrously expanding presidential powers and destabilizing the checks and balances that are keeping our democracy together—sometimes, it seems, by the narrowest of margins. Such an expansion of powers has the potential to warp our democracy to fit the president’s worldview, which is a thoroughly terrifying prospect.
One way an emergency declaration can be misused has already been made plain: In a national emergency, the president could strip funds from real emergencies in order to bankroll imaginary ones.
The president chose to tap military spending and counternarcotics, but he could have dipped into relief funds that are helping Americans cope after the devastating natural disasters of the last few years. In fact, some Republican lawmakers are irritated that he didn’t make a grab for those funds instead.
Stripping disaster-relief efforts of funding is not only unconscionable, it’s also unwise. Federal spending on natural-disaster mitigation is mostly reactionary, with far more money going to relief than to preparedness. It’s sort of like being afraid your house will flood, then waiting for the waters to rise before buying sandbags. There’s only so much you can do to stanch the flow of water that’s already there.
The federal government doesn’t keep a comprehensive tally of disaster spending, either, until long after the fact. Even though 2018 represented a momentous year for natural disasters, with Hurricane Florence dousing the Carolinas, Hurricane Michael flattening parts of Florida’s Panhandle, and the Camp fire in California claiming more than 80 lives, relief spending is ongoing, and complete numbers may not be available for a while.
More details are available for 2017, a year when 57 disasters were declared. Congress provided almost $140 billion in funding for disaster relief in 2017, far more than the cost of the border wall. But this money—and the cash Trump wants for his vanity project—could be better spent making the country safer for the American people. Disaster spending is the perfect case for this, because research has shown that for every dollar spent on preparing for and mitigating future disasters, the federal government could save $6. To put that into perspective, if Congress rerouted the $8 billion earmarked for the border wall into natural-disaster preparedness and mitigation, it could save as much as $48 billion in disaster relief down the line.
Following this logic, instead of spending $140 billion in disaster relief in 2017, Congress could have spent only $24 billion to prepare for disasters, leaving a hypothetical $116 billion for other projects. Consider Flint, Michigan, for example. Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Repairing the city’s water system would cost an estimated $55 million, a paltry sum in comparison to possible savings over disaster relief. However, funding for disaster mitigation isn’t quite there.
Between 2007 and 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $8.3 billion to help state and local governments mitigate the potential impact of natural disasters. Yes, that’s only $300 million more than Trump’s border wall—over a nine-year period. Here’s the fun part: 84 percent of that $8.3 billion (or $6.9 billion) was provided by the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is only available after the president declares a major federal disaster.
Illegal border crossings are down, but natural disasters are only getting worse. Preparing for them now would save billions of dollars and hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Disaster preparedness also dovetails nicely with the Green New Deal.
Even if the president doesn’t want to spend money on disaster preparedness, he has plenty of real emergencies to choose from. Rates of homelessness are soaring in cities across the country. More than 130 people die everyday from an opiate-related overdose. Nearly 40,000 people died from gun violence in the United States in 2017, and our country has more school shootings than any other country in the world. Want a national emergency? Take your pick.
Too bad the lives of the American people are not the president’s priority. Ever the showman, Trump would rather please his fan base by scapegoating immigrants and throwing money down a well of useless spending, leaving all of us—including his biggest fans—vulnerable to real emergencies in the process.
Rebecca Renner is a writer and professor from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic’s CityLab and Pacific Standard. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaRennerFL and read more of her work on rebecca-renner.com.