At the risk of coming off as curmudgeonly, we again renew our call that state legislators take regular votes to either affirm or discontinue states of emergency declared to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governors in all 50 states have exercised emergency powers available to them to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Some have been more heavy-handed than others. It is by no means a settled question as to whether the prescribed cures or the virus have caused more damage.
We do not question the sincerity of governors who are trying to deal with the crisis. It is not our intent to judge the legitimacy of individual actions taken by state executives. We think that’s the job of the elected representatives of the people, at some reasonable interval after the immediate threat has been addressed.
In February, few of us would have envisioned an emergency that would prompt a governor 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 — all by decree and without the consent of their legislatures.
Take Oregon as an example.
Next week, on Election Day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s most recent emergency declaration related to COVID-19 is set to expire. It most certainly will be renewed.
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. She 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, not Gov. Brown. 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.
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.