EDITORIAL: Our government balances presidential rights, power

President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci | The Associated Press)

Our government was designed to prevent autocrats from taking control of the country. Our nation’s founders created an ingenious system of checks and balances through which every arm of government must answer to another. Even we are part of the system, imparting checks and balances on lawmakers by voting them in to or out of office.

Still, there are times when decisions must be made faster than lawmakers can be assembled; that was even more true 200 years ago, before the advent of motorized travel and electronic communication. That is why our president was given powers that include negotiating international treaties and addressing national emergencies.

An attack by a foreign power, for example, might prompt the president, as commander in chief, to order immediate military action, even though only Congress can declare war. Yes, most of our military campaigns since World War II have lacked that official declaration, but Congress has given de facto approval for those campaigns by funding them.

Current Congress members now accuse President Trump of overreaching his authority by declaring a national emergency to gather the funds he wants to build a wall along our southern border.

Human rights and environmental groups are among several that have filed lawsuits to challenge the declaration, under which Trump says he will take money from our national defense budget to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The move raises many questions, as it should — not the least of which is his plan to take money from our military, which is needed to keep us safe from the real threat of terror and hostile armies, and use the money to defend us against unarmed Latin American migrants who pose no real threat. It’s worth noting that despite Trump’s claims that swarms of people cross our border every day, estimates of unauthorized residents in this country haven’t increased. In fact, many analysts say the numbers have gone down in recent years.

And even Trump’s emergency power is subject to checks and balances; our lawmakers need only do their jobs to invoke them.

Presidential declarations of national emergencies are nothing new; in fact, the border is Trump’s fourth declared emergency in two years. Historically, most declarations mobilize responses after national disasters such as storms or earthquakes, or impose sanctions against foreign powers to address misdeeds or policies.

Under the National Emergencies Act, Congress can review the declarations and determine their validity — in fact, it must do so within six months of the declaration. If the action is deemed unwarranted, lawmakers can pass a resolution to end it.

Many Republican officials have joined Democrats in questioning whether this emergency is real, and they could support a resolution to kill the declaration. The president can veto any legislation, so Congress must pass the bill by a two-thirds majority in order to override any veto.

Legal challenges to this emergency declaration could take a while as they work through the various district and appellate levels. But Congress can act immediately; its leadership need only move a resolution through the lawmaking process. Members can lobby their colleagues regarding the issue, and all Americans can do their part by calling their representatives.

The mechanisms are in place to support or stop Trump’s emergency declaration, which he himself has admitted was unnecessary. It just takes the motivation to get the process started.