The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The United States is in a state of emergency – 30 of them, in fact

The United States has been in an uninterrupted state of national emergency since 1979. Here in 2014, we're not dealing with just one emergency - there are currently 30 of them in effect.

That's according to data on presidential declarations of emergency compiled by Gregory Korte of USA Today. "Those emergencies, declared by the president by proclamation or executive order, give the president extraordinary powers — to seize property, call up the National Guard and hire and fire military officers at will," Korte writes.

President Obama has declared nine so far, eight of which are currently in effect -- they primarily deal with preventing business with people or organizations involved in global conflicts or the drug trade. Obama has also renewed many of his predecessors' orders -- just last week he renewed our ongoing state of emergency with respect to Iran for its 36th straight year.

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took a light touch on declarations of emergency - they invoked only a handful, none of which remain in effect. But Bill Clinton proclaimed 16 emergencies and George W. Bush declared 14, 13 of which are still in effect today.

Blocking business transactions with various interests may not seem like national emergency material. But the language underlying these declarations is often nearly apocalyptic. Obama's recent continuation of a Bush-era emergency relating to "the property of certain persons contributing to the conflict" in the Democratic Republic of the Congo states that "this situation continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States."

The Obama administration also maintains that "the actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Belarus and other persons continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

You may wonder why the president needs to declare a state of emergency to deal with what appears to be fairly routine instances of corruption in far-flung corners of the world. Korte notes that Congress provides little oversight on emergency declarations, even through it's mandated to do so by law. In an era when tussles over executive power are a near-daily occurrence, this is a strange incongruity.

"What the National Emergencies Act does is like a toggle switch, and when the president flips it, he gets new powers. It's like a magic wand. and there are very few constraints about how he turns it on," said Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton professor interviewed by Korte.

In the absence of a crisis, there's little compelling reason for a government to adopt a permanent crisis stance. The danger is that a public desensitized to claims to extraordinary circumstances could be more likely to allow excesses of authority performed in the name of those circumstances.

As Korte writes, "A post-9/11 state of national emergency declared by President George W. Bush — and renewed six times by President Obama — forms the legal basis for much of the war on terror" -- a war which has so far seen a rise in terrorism around the globe.