What is the Stafford Act and what does it do?
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Topline: In a widely expected move on Friday, President Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, invoking powers under the Stafford Act to allow substantially more federal aid to states and local governments.
- Trump has faced mounting pressure from lawmakers, especially Democrats, to declare the coronavirus a national emergency, which would free up as much as $50 billion in federal aid to help combat the pandemic.
- In his press conference, Trump announced that his administration would be partnering with private industry to speed up the rate of coronavirus testing; Vice President Mike Pence called it a “historic public-private partnership.”
- The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to direct how the U.S. government responds to disasters and to assist state and local governments during “natural catastrophes.”
- Declaring a national emergency would allow the government to muster additional resources to deal with the coronavirus, not to mention allow states to request a 75% federal cost-share for expenses related to mitigation efforts—including emergency workers, medical supplies, vaccinations and medical tests.
- While FEMA’s powers under a national emergency are more commonly associated with natural disasters, the agency can also be mobilized to address pandemics like the coronavirus.
- Usage of the Stafford Act is actually quite common (it gets invoked an average of 56 times per year, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service), but it has rarely been used for public health emergencies since the 1960s: Only twice, in 2000, when President Bill Clinton declared emergencies in New York and New Jersey over the West Nile Virus outbreak, according to Bloomberg.
- In the past, it’s been used for everything from large-scale disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina to more localized issues like flooding in the Midwest and the California wildfires that occurred earlier in Trump’s presidency.
Tangent: Trump cannot use his executive powers under the Stafford Act to delay the November 2020 election—only Congress can adjust the date. If Trump had made an emergency declaration under the separate National Emergencies Act, for instance, that would’ve given him sweeping executive powers—from controlling the internet to suspending laws altogether. The Stafford Act declaration deals with FEMA only, however.
Crucial quote: Trump is a self-proclaimed expert on the Stafford Act. “We have very strong emergency powers under the Stafford Act,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “I have it memorized, practically… And if I need to do something, I’ll do it. I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” the president said.
Crucial statistics: There are now over 1,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., with 40 people dead so far.
Chief critic: “We’ve been calling for President Trump to do this for days… Americans will support an emergency declaration to extend assistance to Americans who need it,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY.) said on Twitter. “But he must not overstep his authority or indulge his autocratic tendencies for purposes not truly related to this crisis.”
What to watch for: Whether a coronavirus relief bill will get passed on Friday. As the Trump administration and Congress negotiate terms of what the economic response to coronavirus would look like, both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have indicated that a stimulus deal is imminent. Mnuchin told CNBC earlier that “we’re very close to getting this done,” while Pelosi vowed later in the day that the legislation would indeed get passed on Friday.