Last week I wanted to know the views of western Virginia’s congressional delegation on a hot Washington topic that this week will heat up even more.
Where do they stand on the issue of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the national emergency President Trump has declared there? The declaration came Feb. 15, shortly after bipartisan approval by Congress of only a fraction of the $5 billion the president claims he needs to build “the wall.”
As the president explained it, declaring an national emergency gives authority under a decades-old federal law to sidestep Congress and re-jigger some defense spending lawmakers approved for other purposes — and instead spend it on a border wall.
Critics have raised a pesky sticking point: Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution. Here’s what it says: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
Generally, that means all federal spending has to be specifically approved by Congress.
And given that Congress already has specifically disapproved most of the president’s wall funding, the issue is destined to wind up in a courtroom. At least 16 states have already sued to block Trump’s move.
Critics of the president’s action do not include U.S. Reps. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. (We will get to the interesting position of U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson, below.)
In a statement Griffith issued, he reached back to a 2004 precedent, citing a national emergency declared by then President George W. Bush. That froze assets in the U.S. owned by a corrupt regime then in control of Liberia, and blocked importation of goods from the African country.
“If a president can declare a national emergency to implement a non-importation policy to influence a foreign country’s affairs, I believe a president has the authority to declare an emergency under the circumstances President Trump has,” Griffith’s statement said.
Cline told me his position in a phone call on Friday: “I support [Trump’s] declaration of an emergency,” he said. “My reading of the statute is that [Trump] has a very limited authority to redirect the money to construction projects [provided] those projects are a military activity.”
Cline noted that the president already has deployed troops to the southern border.
And what about Riggleman? Somewhat tepidly, he seems opposed to Trump’s declaration. Here’s a statement from the congressman that his spokesman, Joe Chelak, emailed me:
“Border security is not controversial. The only controversy is when people play politics with our border. I understand there is frustration and why some people want a national emergency but I think we need to lean towards separation of powers and have a congressional solution to this.”
In a subsequent phone call, Chelak clarified that Riggleman would not necessarily vote to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. Such a measure is expected to come up in the House on Tuesday.
I told Chelak it sounded to me like Riggleman was trying to have it both ways.
So now you may have a better idea of where your congressman stands, as lawyers begin churning out reams of court documents that both oppose and favor Trump’s attempted end-run around Congress’ constitutionally mandated spending authority.
People who believe the sky is falling on the matter see it as another power grab by an authoritarian-leaning occupant of the White House. If Trump gets away with this, they’ve reasoned, what dictatorial move will he pull next?
But it’s also possible there’s a silk lining to this sow’s ear. Because if a court ultimately finds a loophole in the constitution that allows a president to ignore congressional spending authority, that raises interesting possibilities for the future.
One’s in the area of climate change, which from a military perspective isn’t theoretical. Already, parts of the Norfolk naval base — headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet — flood almost every time there’s a full moon.
According to a 2017 article in National Geographic, tidal waters block the base’s entry road 10 times per year, not counting extreme weather events. Those tides prevent sailors from getting from one end of the base to the other. The water rises above piers where ships are docked and shorts out those vessels’ electrical hookups.
Suppose Republicans in some future Congress insert language into the Defense Department budget to forbid the military from spending money to plan or prepare for climate change.
(That’s not theoretical either. They actually did that in 2014 and 2015.)
Could a Democratic president simply declare a national emergency and re-appropriate funds to fight rising sea levels at naval bases? Why not, if Trump can ignore Congress and re-appropriate defense funding and justify it by claiming he needs a wall to stop a flood of immigrants on the southern border?
And what if a future Democratic president declared a national emergency on guns, after the next public massacre, like the not-too-distant ones in Parkland, Florida; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Las Vegas?
Could a favorable court ruling for Trump on “the wall” lead to the unintended consequence of future gun controls being issued via presidential executive order? Who knows?
When a congressman from Salem cites a ban on imports from Africa as justification for emergency White House spending on a wall at the U.S.-Mexican border, anything seems possible.