Legislators from different political parties don’t agree on much. But there is one area in which they are in bipartisan lockstep: zealously guarding their power.
A recent Associated Press article detailed how this tendency is playing out at statehouses around the country, where lawmakers are questioning protracted Covid-19 restrictions that have been imposed by governors and other members of the executive branch.
Frustrated by being cut out of the loop on the extent and duration of most of these executive orders, lawmakers have been fighting back now that the worst of the crisis appears to have waned.
Citing the count of the National Council of State Legislatures, the AP reported that lawmakers in 45 states have proposed more than 300 measures this year related to legislative oversight of executive actions not just during the pandemic but also during less rare emergencies.
This is occurring not only in states where the legislative majorities and the governor are of different parties. It’s also happening where they are under the same political banner.
The thrust of these reforms is to impose time limits on how long governors can declare a state of emergency before they have to seek the approval of their legislature to extend it. At least two such bills were filed in the recently completely legislative session in Mississippi, although neither survived.
Both sides in this debate make reasonable arguments.
Governors say it’s their responsibility and that of their appointees to manage crises. And it’s true that the executive branch can act more nimbly than the legislative one to manage the correct response to a emergency, whether it be a once-in-a-century pandemic or a more common natural disaster.
For example, during the Covid-19 crisis, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves made decisions, sometimes on a daily basis, as to where commerce would be curtailed, where masks would be mandated, where social gatherings would be restricted and where vaccines would be distributed. There’s no way a legislative body, with so many diverse opinions, could reach a quick decision on these types of time-sensitive matters.
When given this kind of overreaching power, however, there is a tendency by governors to abuse their discretion.
For example, Republican lawmakers in New Hampshire are irritated that Gov. Chris Sununu, a fellow Republican, has for the past year been renewing his emergency declaration every 21 days as a way to retain sole power over that authority.
There should be some middle ground. As a matter of practicality, governors should have the sole authority for a short-term emergency declaration. But when a crisis drags on indefinitely, as with the pandemic, lawmakers should have some input into whether circumstances dictate that the measures ordered by a governor be extended, relaxed or even possibly strengthened.
At what point such concurrence should be triggered is also arguable. Requiring legislative consent within a month or less is too soon. Three to six months sounds more like it.
If a governor foresees a state of emergency being necessary for longer than that, it should be incumbent on the chief executive not only to explain to the state’s citizens why this is the case — and also to get the citizens’ elected representatives to sign off on the extension.
From its very founding, this nation has been distrustful of unilateral decision-making. The Constitution puts a high priority on ruling by consensus, or at least by majority. Exceptions to this should be extraordinary and of as short a duration as is practicable.
(McComb) Enterprise Journal (April 24)