WASHINGTON — In a time of political and economic turmoil, just what, exactly, counts as a national emergency?
President Biden has declared one for Covid, for solar panels and for Russian oil, but not yet for monkeypox. He has hesitated to call the climate crisis an emergency, and has concluded that doing so for reproductive rights would be mostly meaningless. He agreed with his predecessor that opioid addiction was worthy of the designation, but ended the former president’s emergency to fund a border wall.
The power to declare emergencies is one of the few presidential powers that can be exercised without much oversight from Congress or the courts, allowing the nation’s leader to respond quickly in a crisis by invoking special authorities or unlocking federal funds.
But Mr. Biden is facing an increasing number of demands — often from his own allies — for declarations on a broad range of issues, including topics like climate and abortion that are roiling American culture. In the view of the Washington advocacy community, the United States should be in a perpetual state of emergency.
That sense of urgency has collided headfirst with a president who has shown little appetite for quickly applying the label, wary of being accused of executive overreach or triggering lengthy legal challenges.
Mr. Biden came into office promising to be the opposite of former President Donald J. Trump. He would be deliberative, he said, and wouldn’t declare emergencies merely to boost his executive power to act without the consent of Congress.
On Jan. 20, 2021, his first day in office, Mr. Biden revoked Proclamation 9844, which was the emergency declaration that Mr. Trump had used to siphon money from the Defense Department and other federal agencies so he could finance what he called his “big, beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico.
“I have determined that the declaration of a national emergency at our southern border was unwarranted,” Mr. Biden wrote. “It shall be the policy of my administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall.”
But while many Democrats cheered the president’s action to end the border wall emergency, just as many have expressed frustration with Mr. Biden’s reluctance to use similar rhetoric on the issues that matter to them, including the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, four Democratic lawmakers and half a dozen climate activists joined a chorus of others who have been demanding that Mr. Biden declare a climate emergency after the president’s ambitious legislation to address global warming fell apart in Congress. The best way to confront “Big Oil,” they said in a news release: Call it an emergency.
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“As the country faces ongoing and record-setting droughts, heat waves and floods, declaring a climate emergency would unlock a series of executive authorities that could have a major impact on driving down emissions and protecting communities from the impacts of fossil fuel development and climate disasters,” the lawmakers wrote.
The advocates argue that declaring an emergency would give Mr. Biden broader power to make good on his promise to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. They say it would streamline his ability to reinstate a crude oil export ban, halt offshore oil and gas drilling and restrict U.S. fossil fuel exports, among other steps.
The president has hesitated to follow their advice, though Karine Jean-Pierre, his press secretary, says the idea is still “on the table.” In Massachusetts last week, he said “this is an emergency, an emergency, and I will look at it that way.” But instead of officially declaring one, Mr. Biden said he would spend $2.3 billion to enhance the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The president has also resisted the call from abortion rights advocates to declare a public health emergency in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade. Advocates say doing so would demonstrate the president’s commitment to finding ways to reinstate protections for women who want to get an abortion.
But Mr. Biden and his staff have been lukewarm to the idea.
“It doesn’t free very many resources,” Jen Klein, the co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council, told reporters. “It’s what’s in the public health emergency fund, and there’s very little money — tens of thousands of dollars in it. So that didn’t seem like a great option. And it also doesn’t release a significant amount of legal authority.”
That explanation has done little to quell the frustration among the leaders of groups who are fighting abortion bans in more than a dozen states across the country. They argue that a declaration of emergency would set a different tone, whatever its legal impact.
But Mr. Biden has made clear he will not be rushed — on any emergency.
This week, administration officials acknowledged that the president is weighing whether to declare that the spread of the monkeypox virus is a public health emergency. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, declared a global health emergency on Saturday because of monkeypox. Officials said that an announcement could come soon.
“In the U.S. right now, we’re looking at public health emergency as something that H.H.S. might deliver — might invoke — but it really depends on what does that allow us to do,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the coordinator of the White House Covid response, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The White House is also considering whether to name a coordinator for monkeypox, as it has done for the coronavirus pandemic response, according to an administration official. And the administration has told Congress it may need as much as $7 billion to fight the disease, the official said.
As of Wednesday, more than 3,000 Americans had been infected with monkeypox, according to health officials.
Mr. Biden has agreed to declare an emergency in some cases, using authorities designed to temporarily boost the government’s power to respond to urgent issues.
One set of laws gives the administration the power to declare public health emergencies to confront threats that could make Americans ill. That allows the government to limit entry to the United States and to authorize the release of resources from the federal stockpile to treat the spread of disease.
A separate measure, the 1976 National Emergencies Act, authorizes the president to declare an emergency in order to temporarily assume a wide range of powers, including the ability to order military construction projects, impose sanctions, block exports, and more.
Presidents have traditionally limited the use of emergency declarations. Critics argue that using them too frequently is an inappropriate way to expand the powers of the presidency.
Like Mr. Trump, the current president has declared that the Covid-19 pandemic is a national emergency. He has extended longstanding emergency declarations for the opioid crisis, the global illicit drug trade, the human rights crisis in Ethiopia, and the situation in Burma. His response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine includes several declarations of national emergency.
And last month, Mr. Biden declared that the rising demand for electricity, and the potential shortage of sources of energy, required a national emergency declaration to allow duty-free importation of solar cells from parts of Southeast Asia.
The declaration cleared the way for the smooth processing of solar cells or modules imported from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce.
It likely did little, however, to stem the demand for more emergency declarations.