National Emergency Act and the Stafford Act

The President of the United States has certain extensive powers that come into play during a time of crisis or disaster. One of these is known as the declaration of a “State of Emergency.” Although not explicitly outlined in the Constitution, the President is allowed to issue these declarations solely at his discretion due to the powers of the Executive Order (which is mentioned in Article 2 of the Constitution). 

In short, this means that the President sees the current national situation as severe enough to require the label of an “emergency.” During a state of emergency, the President can invoke either the National Emergency Act, or something known as the Stafford Act.

National Emergency Act of 1976

A declaration under the NEA grants the President a broader range of powers and can allocate funds to those areas he sees as most necessary for the current emergency situation. It removes some of the limits he currently has, as President, and allows him to do ~virtually~ anything, from seizing radio stations and the internet to suspending certain laws. It is typically seen as a way to gain access to funds where Congress has not previously approved them, or to allow for more military actions. As an example, the President invoked the National Emergency Act in February of 2019 to declare an emergency on the Southern Border. This allowed him to use funds Congress previously didn’t approve, for the purpose of building a border wall.

Is there a check on this? 

Congress can end the National Emergency in a joint resolution that would have to be signed into law. This would almost certainly not happen in our current Congressional climate, but it is a possibility should the President carry out powers that are not seen as directly helpful to the current cause. Another option is the court system. If a lawsuit challenges the declaration, the appeals process would ultimately make it go through state, federal and appellate courts, eventually winding up at the Supreme Court for a final review. This could take months, if not years, as most court challenges do. 

Is this a big deal? 

It depends on the context and, ultimately, what the President decides to do with these powers. In the past, during WW2, President Roosevelet used the powers under a State of Emergency to call for the internment of Japanese Americans. On the other hand, there are currently thirty-one ongoing national emergencies of which we rarely hear about and of which we hardly feel the effects. 

How does it compare to the Stafford Act?

While an emergency declaration under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, expands the president’s powers, an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act of 1988 deals primarily with FEMA. It would essentially allow FEMA to provide orderly and system funding to state and local government to assist citizens who are affected by a natural disaster. Essentially, this speeds up the process of getting money to communities in need. The FEMA budget as approved by Congress is currently $40 billion dollars. This type of declaration has occurred in the past during and following national disasters to allow for the rebuilding of communities and aiding those who have suffered during the emergency. 

Glossary:

FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, primarily focused on being a resource and providing support following times of disaster.  

Internment – The state of being confined or imprisoned, such as the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans from 1942-1946. 

Executive Order – A directive issued at the discretion of the President which instructs or manages different parts of the federal government. An order that bypasses typical methods of enacting laws.


Sources:

NY Times- https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/03/12/us/12reuters-health-coronavirus-usa-emergency-explainer.html

FEMA.gov – https://www.fema.gov/robert-t-stafford-disaster-relief-and-emergency-assistance-act-public-law-93-288-amended 

Washington Post- https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/02/15/what-exactly-is-national-emergency-heres-what-that-means-what-happens-next/

Copy edited by Megan Lachman

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