National Emergency Powers Page: 4 of 25
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National Emergency Powers
Federal law provides a variety of powers for the President to use in response to
crisis, exigency, or emergency circumstances threatening the nation. Moreover, they
are not limited to military or war situations. Some of these authorities, deriving from
the Constitution or statutory law, are continuously available to the President with
little or no qualification. Others - statutory delegations from Congress - exist on
a stand-by basis and remain dormant until the President formally declares a national
emergency. These delegations or grants of power authorize the President to meet the
problems of governing effectively in times of crisis. Under the powers delegated by
such statutes, the President may seize property, organize and control the means of
production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law,
seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of
private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United
States citizens. Furthermore, Congress may modify, rescind, or render dormant such
delegated emergency authority.
Until the crisis of World War I, Presidents utilized emergency powers at their
own discretion. Proclamations announced the exercise of exigency authority.
However, during World War I and thereafter, Chief Executives had available to them
a growing body of standby emergency authority which became operative upon the
issuance of a proclamation declaring a condition of national emergency. Sometimes
such proclamations confined the matter of crisis to a specific policy sphere, and
sometimes they placed no limitation whatsoever on the pronouncement. These
activations of stand-by emergency authority remained acceptable practice until the
era of the Vietnam war. In 1976, Congress curtailed this practice with the passage
of the National Emergencies Act.
Background and History
The exercise of emergency powers had long been a concern of the classical
political theorists, including the eighteenth-century English philosopher John Locke,
who had a strong influence upon the Founding Fathers in the United States. A
preeminent exponent of a government of laws and not of men, Locke argued that
occasions may arise when the executive must exert a broad discretion in meeting
special exigencies or "emergencies" for which the legislative power provided no
relief or existing law granted no necessary remedy. He did not regard this
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National Emergency Powers, report, June 20, 2006; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc821861/m1/4/: accessed November 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.