There has been much reporting on the border wall between America and Mexico. President Donald Trump and the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives have fiercely clashed over funding for its construction, resulting in a temporary shutdown of some government institutions. It appears that there will be twists and turns before a resolution, and some think that Trump might declare a national emergency to appropriate the funds.*
And yet, America is not in as much trouble as we think. The annual budget is divided into 12 bills based on different categories, and five of these were passed before last year’s midterm elections. Expenditures for mandatory spending like public pensions are set by authorization bills.
Even if some appropriations bills are not passed, states have broad powers and everyday life for the public isn’t much affected. Furloughed government employees have trouble when there is a shutdown, but they are paid eventually. This means that one can think of shutting down part of the government as political theater by the president.
There are two points of incongruity in this issue. One is America’s structure. In Japan, we are taught that the Diet is the highest government institution, and it was America that guaranteed this in the constitution, but in the U.S. itself, it’s hard to shake the impression that the president instead is the highest government institution.
First of all, the president can continue his or her work and disregard the will of the majority party in Congress. He or she has the authority to consign bills passed by both chambers of Congress to oblivion using the president’s veto power. If the president wants, he can make budget appropriations by declaring a national emergency.
As far as common ground goes, the president only has to face Congress when he or she delivers the State of the Union address. If the system was like Japan, where prime ministers frequently explain themselves to the Diet, would the situation be this turbulent?
The other point – and this has been pointed out in America as well – is that a national emergency would only be a way to build the wall immediately. National emergencies usually refer to a war or major disaster. Declaring them is a way to respond at once by enacting a plan without legislative approval. Besides, compared to the flood of refugees to Europe several years earlier, illegal immigration to the U.S. is small.
You could say that Trump has made these systemic problems clearer. Now might be an opportunity to rethink the concept of democracy and the ideal structure of the nation.
*Editor’s note: This article was originally published before President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019.