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A shaky premise

President Donald Trump, frustrated that Congress won’t give him $5.7 billion to build a portion of a border wall, is threatening to declare a state of national emergency and proceed without congressional approval. But his statement about that on Wednesday makes a mockery of the very concept.

Congress in 1974 gave the president the authority to declare national emergencies to activate special power during a crisis, but provided no definition of what constitutes a crisis.

There are 31 national emergencies in effect today, dating back to 1979, the last three declared by Trump himself.

Why have we heard little about them? Because virtually all of them involve sanctions against foreign governments or individuals involved in conflicts around the globe. None of them involved spending money not appropriated by Congress, and all are clearly related to the security interests of the United States. The U.S. Constitution says only Congress may appropriate money, and it’s congressional Democrats’ refusal to authorize $5.7 billion to construct a portion of border wall that Trump might seek to get around.

If the situation on the border is so dire that immediate action is necessary — and there is little evidence that it is — then Trump already should have declared a state of emergency and moved ahead. Instead, he’s just threatening to do so.

“My threshold,” he said Wednesday, “would be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable.”

An emergency declaration is not a bargaining chip. Neither are the 800,000 federal employees going without paychecks.