I generally wait until Sunday each week to work on the blog you get to read on Monday but this week I knew I had a very full weekend ahead so I decided to start on Friday afternoon. First, I went through the list of resolutions from General Convention that dioceses and congregations are asked to address and then, having found a couple that sparked my interest and seemed timely, I went to the full texts of these to select one for this week. I began gathering information and background on the resolution so I could give you enough material to make it your own. And then I took a break. I noticed a new post from the Office of Government Relations of The Episcopal Church on my Facebook page and my planned resolution went right out the window for now.
This is what I saw:
Statement on Funding Bill and National Emergency
The Episcopal Church recognizes today’s bipartisan compromise as an important advancement to averting another harmful government shutdown. However, we remain concerned about expanded immigration detention and militarization around the border region. In light of the declaration of a national emergency, we are concerned the President is deliberately disregarding the will of Congress, which has Constitutional authority to appropriate funds, in order to pursue a policy that is neither compassionate nor wise. Families, children, and individuals seeking protection are not a national emergency.
The United States should recognize the urgency in the plight of families and individuals who are fleeing violence and persecution and should invest in solutions to safely welcome families who are seeking protection rather than promoting policies that harm those most in need of protection. In alignment with long standing General Convention policy, The Episcopal Church continues to urge members of Congress and the Administration to advance immigration policies that put protection first and maintain rights of asylum seekers.
Furthermore, The Episcopal Church urges elected officials to employ alternatives to detention, keep families together, and seek long term solutions that advance comprehensive immigration reform.
The Episcopal Public Policy Network page that highlighted this statement included two resources that might help as you consider this issue. The first comes from a website called “Reason: Free minds and Free Markets” written by their reporter Eric Boehm:
Activists who worked with both parties to pass a signature criminal justice reform bill late last year sounded the alarm on Thursday as a major spending bill worked its way quickly through Congress—without, apparently, including promised funding for the newly passed law.
As Reason‘s C.J. Ciaramella reported in December when it passed, the FIRST STEP Act aimed to reduce federal prison populations by shrinking some mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges greater discretion over the lengths of prison sentences. Importantly, the bill also called for expanding job training opportunities and programs that seek to ease prisoners’ reentry into society, and for funding a risk assessment system that would be used to give some inmates access to early release.
The FIRST STEP Act authorized $75 million in spending annually from fiscal year 2019 (the current fiscal year) through fiscal year 2023, with most of that funding directed to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Department of Justice. It was widely assumed that funding would be included in the omnibus bill now before Congress—the most high-profile element of which is funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall—but there is no explicit funding for the FIRST STEP Act included in the bill.
The omission is particularly glaring since President Donald Trump had highlighted the passage of the bill just 10 days ago at the State of the Union address. Among the White House’s guests for the occasion was Alice Johnson, whose story, Trump said, “underscores the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing—and the need to remedy this injustice.”
“Notably, for President Trump’s agenda, the bill entirely fails to provide appropriations for one of his greatest legislative victories thus far in his term—the First Step Act,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a free market group that supported the passage of the FIRST STEP Act. “It is unacceptable that Congress should not find it important to fund this massive legislative victory, while it simultaneously has no problem funding above and beyond for wasteful programs.”
In a statement posted online Thursday afternoon, Brandon called for lawmakers to vote against the omnibus bill, citing concerns about profligate spending, a rushed timeline for a final vote, and the lack of funds for the FIRST STEP Act. The 1,000-plus page bill was unveiled in the early hours of Thursday morning, and had already cleared the Senate (with an 83-16 vote) on Thursday evening.
(For more on the spending components of the bill, see Christian Britschgi’s report here. For more on Trump’s decision to take $1.3 billion for a border and then declare a national emergency to spend even more money on a wall, see Joe Setyon’s report here.)
It’s possible the FIRST STEP Act could still receive its promised funding by reallocating other Bureau of Prisons funding, but criminal justice reform advocates told Reason they were skeptical that could happen. Newly confirmed Attorney General William Barr would likely have some control over those decisions, and he has a track record of being skeptical of sentencing reforms—while advocating for putting more people behind bars. It seems unlikely that he’d find $75 million in his own budget if Congress doesn’t put it there.
“I think that’s potentially a big issue,” Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor who now works on criminal justice issues, told Reason. “If [DOJ] has the ability to control that money, it’s going to take political pressure to get them to spend it” on the FIRST STEP Act, he said.
The second resource comes from NBC’s website written by Dareh Gregorian and lists 8 things we should know about this national emergency and the far-reaching powers of our presidents:
What is it?
Presidents have long had broad discretion to declare national emergencies and can tap into an array of emergency powers when they do.
While those emergency powers aren’t spelled out in the Constitution, legal scholars say the president is entitled to them under the broadly defined “executive power.” Abraham Lincoln used the power to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War, while Franklin Roosevelt used it to order the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Congress set out to limit the power after the Watergate scandal with the National Emergencies Act of 1976. The act scaled back the provisions of federal law that granted emergency authority to the president — then about 470 — and was intended to give lawmakers a way to check presidential power.
What are the powers?
An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal law and public policy institute, at New York University’s School of Law identified 136 statutory powers that emergency declarations could give the president, covering everything from the military and land use to public health and agriculture. The president could, for example, take over or shut down radio stations or even “suspend a law that prohibits the testing of chemical and biological weapons on unwitting human subjects,” the analysis says.
In the case of Trump’s border wall, the president is relying on Section 2808 of the Title 10 U.S. Code. It says if the president declares a national emergency “that requires use of the armed forces,” the defense secretary “may undertake military construction projects … not otherwise authorized by law that are necessary to support such use of the armed forces.”
Can Congress stop it?
Theoretically, but not likely. The National Emergencies Act originally held that Congress could repeal a presidential emergency declaration with a simple majority vote in both houses, but that was later amended because of a 1983 Supreme Court ruling involving separation of powers. As a result, both houses of Congress would have to act with a veto-proof supermajority, according to some experts. That’s highly unlikely, since the current divided Congress has had problems even keeping the government open.
Can the courts?
Possibly. Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said on MSNBC’S “The Rachel Maddow Show” that such a measure would “be subject to a court challenge very quickly.”
Trump acknowledged to reporters at the White House on Friday that his declaration will be challenged in the courts and that the case would likely wind up at the Supreme Court, where he predicted victory. But experts have noted the legal process could take a long time, and there’s a likelihood any wall construction would be put on hold until the court case was concluded.
Have other presidents used the power?
Yes, many times. Since the 1976 law was enacted, presidents declared national emergencies 58 times, but never to fund a stalled policy goal. Republicans and Democrats say doing so could lead down a slippery slope.
Yes, three times. He most recently used the National Emergencies Act in November of last year to slap sanctions on high-ranking members of the Nicaraguan government. Trump also signed an order in 2017 targeting 13 foreign nationals accused of human rights abuses and corruption, and another last year authorizing sanctions against foreign nationals who have engaged in interference in U.S. elections.
Has a president ever been blocked?
Yes, but not in decades. President Harry Truman tried to use emergency powers to nationalize the steel industry during the Korean War in 1952 over objections from Congress. Truman maintained that “the president has the power to keep the country from going to hell.” The bid was blocked by the Supreme Court, which found in a 6-3 ruling that Truman had exceeded his authority.
Are other emergencies in effect?
Thirty-one national emergencies are still ongoing, with the longest-running one involving sanctions on Iran in 1979 over the hostage crisis, according to the Brennan Center. Other ongoing presidential emergencies include one from Bill Clinton in 1995 “prohibiting transactions with terrorists who threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process,” and George W. Bush’s broader post-9/11 order authorizing the government to impede terrorist funding.
I am grateful to the Office of Government Relations for their statement and for providing resources that we might have some background on this issue and begin to understand the implications of what the President’s actions might mean for us. You can make your voice heard on the issue by writing to your legislators or signing one of the many on-line petitions that are circulating. The Sojourners website has also prepared a statement about the national emergency and has a link for finding your members of Congress. We must stay informed and knowledgably share our opinions with those in the appropriate offices.
A call for prayer –
Today, we also believe our national crisis calls for prayer, fasting, humility, and repentance. With the season of Lent before us, we ask how we can apply Lenten spiritual practices to our lives and to the dangers facing our democracy.
We pray for the soul of the nation and the resilience of our government’s processes.
We pray that we may have wisdom to discern and speak truth, and courage to stand for it in our public squares. We pray that we may be bridges that bring God’s love to our angry national discourse.
We also call upon church leaders to stand up to the misuse and abuse of political power, in protection of the constitutional checks and balances of government and the common good.
We call on clergy to pray and preach the gospel message and lead their churches to serve as the conscience of the nation.
We call on clergy to offer prayers that our political leaders will make decisions not for their self-interest but for what is right for our nation and those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
We must pray and ask God to take us deeper and prepare us to give a response that comes not from the Left or the Right, but because we are, first and foremost, followers of Jesus.
Prayer and fasting will help us find the spiritual vigilance and availability that are necessary for action.
So help us God. Amen. (from Sojourners)
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council