Last week Oregon Gov. Kate Brown extended her COVID emergency order through March. She joins other governors in the region, Democrats and Republicans, in extending one-person rule.
We ask the indulgence of frequent readers as we plow ground that we have worked several times during the ongoing pandemic. As long as these orders are reissued without the review and explicit consent of the representatives of the people, we feel compelled to continue to take issue.
Did legislators who passed statutes granting governors the authority to declare emergencies envision that they would be used indefinitely to shut down large segments of the economy for undetermined lengths of time, to close private and public schools and colleges, to forbid religious services and private gatherings, declare some businesses “essential” and others not, to rewrite the terms of rental contracts, and restrict access to common healthcare procedures and the courts?
We do not deny that state governments must take steps to control the spread of the virus and protect residents. The experience of the last nine months demonstrates that emergency orders should come with a statutory expiration date and a mandate for the legislature to review actions taken under them.
Here the laws of Oregon fail the people of Oregon.
Two separate Oregon statutes give the governor the authority to declare emergencies and exercise broad powers. One specifically addresses public health emergencies, and the other is for general emergency situations. Brown has invoked both as authority for her executive orders.
The first statute imposes a 14-day limit on the declaration of a health emergency; the other imposes no limit.
Although statute allows the legislature to terminate an emergency declaration on its own authority, it does not require that the legislature meet to consider any of the actions taken.
The Oregon Legislature has chosen to remain silent, so the fault lies with it. It has not been alone. Very few state legislatures have cast votes to either affirm or challenge emergency declarations and the diktats issued in their name.
Where those votes are not required, state laws should be changed to mandate legislative consent.
The dangers of the pandemic are real. Thousands have died, and many thousands more have been infected. The dangers of the shutdowns and restrictions imposed under the emergency orders are real, too. Hundreds of thousands have been thrown out of work, tens of thousands have lost businesses in which they had invested their lives and fortunes, millions of school children are falling behind.
No elected official should be allowed to rule indefinitely by decree. Emergency powers should be limited in duration and subject to mandatory legislative oversight. A benevolent dictatorship in all but name is nonetheless tyranny.