In the 1970s, because of the overreaching and abuses of executive power during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Congress set to work getting rid of many declarations of national emergencies that had been issued over the years.
Proclamations of national emergency that had been issued in World War II, Korea, the Cuban missile crisis and on numerous other occasions were found by a national commission to still be in effect, empowering presidents to take extra-constitutional actions. In 1976—the year of the bicentennial—they were all repealed and a National Emergencies Act was approved to limit the duration of future proclamations and require Congressional approval of such proclamations every six months. It also required Congress to act on any member’s legislation to terminate national emergencies so that such measures could not be buried in committee.
It was a rare instance of sensitivity to the bits of despotism that insinuate themselves into even the most democratic of nations. It is something that is needed now in the United States. On page 15 of this issue is an article on the overlooked and under-reported news stories of this year. We would draw readers’ attention in particular to the first two segments, on the deterioration of the protections we are supposed to enjoy from the Constitution.
When Thomas Jefferson was asked where he drew his inspiration to write the Declaration of Independence, he said he looked within the hearts of the people. It is difficult not to wonder whether he would find the same qualities there today. When the Declaration and then the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights were written, the people knew from personal experience why those documents were needed. We do not have their experiences. We have not had the experience of having troops quartered in our homes, say, or of being taxed to support favored churches.
Still, it is dismaying to see the lassitude among both our leaders and the people toward many of the terrible things that are happening these days. The U.S. Senate approves a nominee for attorney general who winks at torture. The governor of Nevada uses an executive order to suspend a state law, and the Legislature does nothing.
This is a bipartisan problem. Democrats sin repeatedly on issues of civil liberties. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton supports the use of torture in some cases, a stance she altered only after sharp criticism. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is solely responsible for the enactment without a fight of the privacy-invading national identification card law called Real ID.
When a governor refuses to “faithfully execute” a law as Gov. Jim Gibbons did on May 14, it’s an essentially fascist act that threatens democratic governance and the people’s rights. It alarmed Nevada legislators in both parties—none of whom, however, tried to bring the governor to heel.
The liberties we enjoy are our birthright, but they are under constant threat. Perhaps it is too much to expect for those who have never known the absence of rights to understand that liberty is fragile and that its loss starts with small erosions.
We would do well to recall that when Benjamin Franklin exited the hall after the constitutional convention a woman asked him what kind of government the delegates had given the public. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.
Is ours the generation that will fail to keep it?