Trump's national emergency could set dangerous precedent

11 January 2019, 23:41 | Updated: 12 January 2019, 12:14

There have been 20 previous US government shutdowns over budget disputes, but there's never been one as long as this.

Some 800,000 federal employees entered their 22nd day without pay on Saturday. They have either been laid off, or are working for free - in the hope that they will eventually get back pay.

Understandably, they are angry - fearful of missing payments for their homes, cars, and healthcare. Some are struggling to pay for food. Everyone agrees it is not their fault and they should not have to suffer. But their increasingly desperate pleas for the standoff to be resolved are not pushing political rivals towards a compromise.

The president cannot risk a defeat on his key campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. And Democrats will not back down and spend taxpayers' money on a project they believe is unnecessary and ineffective.

Some have gone as far as calling it immoral. As Senator Chuck Schumer said in his rebuttal to Donald Trump's address to the nation: "The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30ft wall".

Mr Trump has shifted his rhetoric, but has not retreated on his promise of a physical barrier along the border. He now calls it a "humanitarian crisis", and would accept a steel fence rather than a concrete wall.

He has even backtracked on his assurance that Mexico would pay for the wall, a pledge repeated over and over again.

Apparently we all misunderstood the nuances of this financial transaction. He now explains that he was not expecting the Mexican government to write a cheque for billions of dollars, but that the money will come as a result of a new trade deal (which has not yet been fully signed). His words have naturally been greeted with derision, and replays of his original promise.

So if the wall is to be built it will be funded by American taxpayers. And there is a way of making that happen which the Democrats can do little to stop: Mr Trump can declare a national emergency and raid the Department of Defence coffers. All week, Pentagon planners and accountants have been drawing up contingency measures in case the emergency is declared.

Friday afternoon seemed a likely time for that to happen. Mr Trump was holding an immigration and border security meeting in the White House, and what better time to announce a major escalation in the dispute, just as members of the Senate and House of Representatives were heading home for the weekend.

But the president held back, saying it would be too easy a solution, and he still wanted Democrats in Congress to see the light and agree to his border funding demands. He is also wary of the long legal battle that would result, even if he is publicly confident that the Supreme Court, with a fresh conservative majority, would ultimately rule in his favour.

Declaring national emergencies to free funding is not uncommon, and usually uncontroversial. Waiting for congressional approval could delay the response to a genuine, unexpected emergency. But border security has been an issue for decades, and the number of illegal immigrants has been falling steadily over that time.

In this case, say critics, it is simply a way of circumventing the very heart of America's Constitution. In the system of checks and balances which were supposed to stop a president wielding too much power, Congress has to agree on the budget. If that principle was overturned it would set a dangerous precedent that Republicans may regret when a Democrat is next in the White House.