When emergency declarations become the emergency

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Crises and economic shocks have a history of abuse. Few are aware that there are 31 declared and ongoing national emergencies, with some active ones up to 45 years old.

Now that COVID-19 has lost its shock factor, President Joe Biden’s administration, driven by visions of a large, proactive government, is searching for the perfect new catastrophe to justify its progressive “build back better” agenda. If there is no extant crisis to exploit, the Biden strategy is to manufacture one.

Biden is already pushing a green agenda, with new rules forcing power plants to capture 90% of coal emissions and restrict the amount of polluted water they discharge. Officially declaring a national climate emergency would make these changes all but irreversible and supply Biden with even more power.

With this authority, he could further subsidize renewable energies, ban crude oil exports, and coerce companies into manufacturing renewable technologies. Recognizing this potential, the White House has already initiated internal discussions about officially announcing a climate crisis.

Although the Earth appears to be warming, Americans must be free to disentangle the climate change narrative from the climate crisis narrative. Indeed, the recurring end-of-the-world predictions of the last decades – like Al Gore’s melted ice caps scare and Noel Brown’s warning that flooding will destroy entire nations – have, one after another, fallen flat.

While protecting the planet is still important, the belief that a more powerful government can and should be its savior is a slippery slope. Both tyrants and well-meaning government officials throughout history have exploited fear to increase their own power. The recent COVID episode proves that there’s no reason this trend won’t repeat itself unless protective steps are taken.

To prevent future abuse, Congress needs to act. Under its interpretation of the National Emergencies Act of 1976, Congress only needs to review declarations every six months (and isn’t required to vote on their renewal). This ineffective and inadequate system fails to keep the executive branch’s continuous power grabs in check.

There are three bills in the 118th Congress that could strengthen this procedure. They are:

A climate emergency declaration would be the most abusive declaration to date, but it wouldn’t be the end of opportunist political predation. If Biden declares it and Congress allows it to stand as precedent, it would mark only the beginning.

If Congress is to curb executive overreach, it should consider the foregoing bills and similar steps. Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that those who choose to pass destructive laws during times of distress are not politicians but tyrants.

“Usurpers always bring about or select troublous times to get passed, under cover of the public terror, destructive laws, which the people would never adopt in cold blood,” he wrote in The Social Contract.

Rousseau’s observation should weigh on the minds of those on Capitol Hill as they consider legislation that could prevent the abuse of not just the climate crisis, but all future crises.