In the late Roman Republic, the constitution permitted the Senate to name a “dictator” in times of emergency and external threat. Contrary to today’s meaning, the dictator was not considered power-hungry or illegitimate. Instead, the dictator was a sensible response to the threat because he could override the normal legislative processes and respond quickly. Roman dictators even had a two-year term limit!
Many Americans don’t realize that the Congress has already granted similar dictatorial powers to the U.S. president to respond to certain emergencies. These powers are not peculiar to Donald Trump but have been used by presidents as far back as George Washington.
Abraham Lincoln declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson nationalized many U.S. industries during World War I. Franklin Roosevelt confiscated Americans’ gold bullion during the Great Depression.
One of the most powerful tools a president possesses is the ability to declare a “national emergency” under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, IEEPA, signed by President Jimmy Carter. This allows a president to freeze and seize assets and order U.S. companies to take specific steps in response to threats to national security having origins abroad.
As reported in this article, President Trump has said he may use his IEEPA powers to order U.S. companies to end operations in China and shift production back to U.S. plants. Trump critics have suggested Trump is going overboard by using IEEPA in this way. That’s not true.
IEEPA has been used extensively in connection with sanctions and asset freezes going back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, including sanctions on Russia for Crimea and other sanctions on Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Iran again. Free market advocates, libertarians and Trump-bashers would all do well to study the vast array of economic weapons at the hands of the president that do not need congressional approval, including the Patriot Act, CFIUS, the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 and many other statutes.
When it comes to markets and the economy, the president has the powers of a dictator. Congress has said that’s a good thing.
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