According to an entry in my grandfather’s journal (late summer, 1944), he did not go to work at the Cramer Coal Mine for several days because “the bosses were on strike.” Labor actions were not unknown during World War II, but they were always resolved quickly and fairly quietly.
“There was a war on” was a popular reaction to anything out of the ordinary during those times. Strikes began in earnest in many industries as soon as wartime restrictions had been lifted, and President Truman had to deal with several between 1946 and 1952.
On Aug. 25, 1950, Truman directed the Secretary of Defense to seize the railroads when talks between the railroads and the striking unions had broken down. The Korean War was barely a month old and a real national crisis was at hand. While the strike went on for two years, the trains continued to run under compromises arranged for and overseen by the Army, and the war support was not affected.
Two years later, Truman attempted the same tactics when the steel industry was on the verge of a strike. The Court did not accept the government argument that the war effort demanded such a remedy, and by a 6-3 decision, declared that the president did not have the power to take emergency action in that instance. (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co v Sawyer-1952).
Can the president unilaterally take emergency actions that should be the power of the Congress?
What constitutes a national emergency?
The emergency powers of the executive were largely undefined by the Constitution or by Congress for most of the life of the Republic. Much of the vagueness of presidential powers is probably due to the expectation at the time that George Washington was the first president, and he was a known quantity. Others were also men of the Revolution and were considered stable and reliable.
No one, it would appear, anticipated a self-absorbed and spiteful Aaron Burr, who fortunately took himself out of the running when he shot Alexander Hamilton.
Much of what the president did depended on the mood of the times: both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt acted with a scope and breadth that today we would call imperial, if not dictatorial. Lincoln [a very successful lawyer] selectively suspended habeas corpus two years before Congress gave him that power and even was able to ignore the Chief Justice’s condemnation of usurping legislative authority; it was 1861, the Union was in grave peril, and in any event, the act was overturned — in 1864, after the tide of the war had decidedly turned in the Union’s favor.
Roosevelt went back to an obscure 1917 financial regulation act to order the Bank Holiday in 1933. But there was a depression on and no one had any money. By this time, the seeds of what we would call the Imperial Presidency had been sown, and Congress became the money source for the White House, no longer a fully equal partner.
The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s ushered the shift in power from the Executive Branch to the Legislative Branch. The excesses of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom exemplified the Imperial Presidency, goaded the Congress to limit unrestricted war-making power (War Powers Act, 1973) and then to close out miscellaneous emergency powers grants buried in legislation going back to before WWI (national Emergency Act, 1976).
We were not going to have anymore out-of-control chief executives. Both acts do not deprive the president from acting independently at the beginning of a crisis, but they do mandate time limits and accounting to Congress on just what the crisis is and costs.
The presidents who followed the more mellow Ford and Carter years did not shrink from exercising authority at home and abroad, but generally did so with conscious and visible interaction with the Congress.
So, is there a crisis on our Southern border?
In 1976, I wrote in my master’s thesis on defense policy (Western Kentucky University) in the chapter on that topic: “Generally speaking, we have only ourselves to blame for the loosening and uncovering of our southern border.”
With a long history of generally ignoring Mexico and Central America and acquiescing to the brokered flood of cheap labor (1942 Bracero Agreement), we cannot be surprised that the Census Bureau has projected the Hispanic population of the United States will be 28 percent in 2030. Our own birthrates have fallen significantly; immigrants will continue to become part of the younger labor force which we need. This part is reality more than crisis.
There is a darker side to the border — human trafficking and drugs, which require very different approaches than those regulating immigration. Barriers, fences, walls, sensors, drones and patrols all have their place in border security, but our real southern border is probably below the border Estados of Mexico itself.
Sex trafficking and drug smuggling feed a market that we ourselves have created; solutions to those crises cannot be addressed solely at the border. One thing is for sure: we cannot continue treating caravans of desperate Central American families seeking social and economic asylum the same way we guard against cartels and coyotes.
Yes, there are a series of security and humanitarian crises with the Southern border, and they are largely of our own making, or ignoring.
It has been easy for politicians of all stripes to pontificate and agitate on the issues, but these all must be addressed by a government that is fully open, and fully collaborating. It will certainly be a lot easier to regulate who is coming into the country if the Department of Homeland Security is fully staffed, equipped, trained — and paid.
One of Truman’s most eloquent messages applies here: “It is amazing how much you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Schoch, who lives in Williamsburg, says he has spent a lifetime studying our government.