One of the first things on the agenda for Kentucky Republicans this year was figuring out how to get Democratic Governor Andy Beshear to his knees. They dropped laws in January that put new limits on the governor’s emergency executive powers, swiftly passed the law, suspended his veto, and then challenged him in court.
In the months that followed, lawmakers across the country – from Maine to California, Oregon to Florida – proposed, and in many cases passed, similar measures to curtail the extensive powers of their heads of state.
The tug-of-war between lawmakers and governors has the potential to shape the boundaries of governance for years to come, and raises substantive questions about how much leeway heads of state should have in lengthy crises.
Fiery debates over things like mask mandates and other economic restraints have been common over the past year, especially in battlefield states and those with divided state governments, as public health debates have been dominated by election year considerations. But the conflict over executive power goes beyond ordinary politics and takes place in red and blue states, and even where one party controls both branches.
The legislature is only now realizing how much power it is surrendering to the executive – and is trying to assert itself again in a blunt way. If 2020 marks the rise of authoritarian governors, 2021 could be the start of their overthrow.
Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers disappointed with Governor Tom Wolf will next month urge primary voters to consider constitutional amendments that would give the state General Assembly the power to end the governor’s disaster statements and for statements that take longer than 21 days to ask for legislative approval.
In Kansas, GOP lawmakers have already passed a law to end the Covid-19 executive order enacted by Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, and used her new power to reject a nationwide mask mandate. Arkansas Republican governor Asa Hutchinson has also signed a bill giving lawmakers more power to oversee his and future governor’s emergency services.
In New York, democratically controlled legislation limited Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ability to issue new dictations related to Covid – one of the earliest signs that the Democrat was less up against several scandals in Albany. Legislators even denied Cuomo’s political cover by refuting his claims that he played a role in mediating the legislation.
And in Ohio, Republicans last month successfully overruled Party member Governor Mike DeWine’s veto of a bill that gave lawmakers numerous emergency and health orders.
“We can’t leave it to one person – no matter how much we like him or her – and everyone else who is elected has to sit on our hands,” said Matt Huffman, President of the Ohio Senate, who accepted the issue upon approval The top management position made a priority in January, said in an interview. “It shouldn’t work that way in a republic.”
As former President Donald Trump approached the pandemic with all his might, reluctant to face any kind of severe restrictions on public life, governors across the country flexed their muscles and exercised in ways that have recently been seen in the fight against Covid -19 was unprecedented.
Many heads of state have long had extraordinary powers to respond to crises, in some ways beyond the reach of the president domestically. The pandemic brought them even more authority – and exposed the limits of their existing powers – as heads of state took steps that reshaped the lives of their constituents.
Most governors during the crisis insisted that they be guided by advancement in science and try to navigate unsafe terrain as best they can. But patience seems to have waned for many lawmakers sitting in the back seat.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in almost every state in the country this year introduced more than 300 bills related to the governor’s emergency agency or executive action taken during the fight against Covid-19. It is likely that only a fraction of these measures will eventually leave the committee, let alone make it into law. However, the bills reflect the significant interest in recalibrating the governors’ emergency services.
In some states, it was a continuation of the philosophical differences that have played out over the course of the ongoing pandemic. That dynamic was particularly evident in places where Democratic governors struggled with GOP-controlled state houses like Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan, where conservative outrage over Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic mandates last year put them in physical danger.
For other governors, however, it was members of their own party who tried to drive back control and severely reprimanded the leadership of their state, as was the case in New York and Ohio last month. The move against DeWine was the first successful override since the Republican took office in 2019 – and despite his claims that the legislation endangers the safety of residents and handcuffs the state’s ability to respond to crises.
“It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that people will die as a result of this, as it requires lawmakers to collectively ignore this type of risk,” Huffman said.
DeWine partnered in more than a dozen public health ordinances last week to “simplify” the rules for people, though he denied the changes had any connection with the newly-empowered legislature.
A number of governors and their legislative allies have fought off efforts to curtail their authority, even though lawmakers in most states are still in session and may act.
The Virginia General Assembly closed without addressing the issue as the legislature moves into an election year, and the Connecticut legislature recently extended Governor Ned Lamont’s emergency powers for another month to May 20.
Max Reed, Lamont’s communications director, attributed this expansion to a sense of collaboration between the two branches of government, both controlled by the Connecticut Democrats.
“Perhaps there is a different understanding in the States about what they experience in these emergencies,” Reed said. “We had a mutual understanding of what was going on with our reaction and the economy.”
Many governors saw their status rise and fall – sometimes more than once – in the minds of their constituents as they drove through uncertain terrain last year. At times they angered religious leaders, business owners, public health officials, and even members of their own political party.
The struggle between lawmakers and governors has been a major factor in the different parts of the country’s response to the pandemic. It has been somewhat overshadowed as states begin lifting restrictions – occasionally against advice from public health experts – and national headlines are dominated by Republican efforts to revise electoral laws and target how transgender youth are treated.
After the Democrats failed to break the GOP majorities in a single legislative chamber and the Republicans failed to oust the Democratic governors in places like North Carolina, the focus quickly shifted to changing the balance of power in state capitals Regarding the policy of the pandemic.
“We all want to make sure the governor can act quickly in an emergency, but we need to think about what constitutes an emergency,” said Massachusetts Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat who introduced laws limiting the powers of Republican Governor Charlie Baker. “The governor has indicated no intention of relinquishing his powers and the legislature must take control of the administration.”
In general, however, the GOP has been far more focused on restricting the lawful activities of governors than the Democrats have to date.
Take the steps in Kentucky, where Beshear is still popular and signed a GOP-blessed bill last week to relax early voting laws. Among other things, the laws passed by the Republicans, which the governor’s office quickly challenged in court, put a 30-day limit on executive orders issued in a state of emergency, unless ratified by the General Assembly, and require separate approval elected attorney general before repealing existing laws and preventing the governor from changing electoral laws during an emergency.
“If he were a Republican, he would have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Colmon Elridge, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, who previously served as an advisor to Beshear’s father, a former governor. “There is a time and a place to have these conversations, but with a little time to evaluate the use of those powers.”
The courts have also put down some of the methods that governors have tried to exercise their powers. In some cases, the top lawmakers were the ones who led the legal effort against the executive and local health departments.
In late March, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Tony Evers’ ability to impose a nationwide mask mandate on Vote 4-3 by stringing together emergency statements to extend the mandate without GOP approval. Legislators lead.
And Michigan lawmakers paved the way for a potential legal showdown after Whitmer vetoed the legislation and set new deadlines for state health department emergency orders at nearly $ 350 million in Covid-19 test drug. In early March, Republican Republicans authorized Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey to sue the Whitmer administration for trying to spend money bound by such laws.
“Executive Fiat didn’t work for Michigan,” said Senator Lana Theis, who sponsored the veto bill, in an interview. “We are supposed to be the voice of the people and we were chosen to be that voice. How long can you work with a single manager? “
Whitmer has said that Republican lawmakers are playing a “dangerous game” in trying to use the money against them.
Similarly, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb vetoed a bill on Friday that would allow lawmakers to call to special sessions in emergencies to repeal governors’ edicts. Holcomb said he believed the provision was unconstitutional.
The situation has not always been so contentious, although governors are instinctively reluctant to interfere with the powers enshrined in their offices.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox, who had taken command of temporary Republican Gary Herbert before winning the governor that fall, managed to negotiate with Republican lawmakers a timeframe in which mask mandates were lifted and the governor’s emergency powers scaled back should be going forward.
Rather than trying to get the legislation out on a grand scale, Cox’s office stayed in close contact with lawmakers throughout the legislative process and helped bring about several changes to the final legal language, Senate majority leader Evan Vickers said.
“There is reasonable permission to have the governor operate on a daily basis so that we have nothing to do with things like tornadoes or chemical spills, and even on long-term things they have room for operations,” Vickers said before billing into law .
Vickers said the negotiations helped deter efforts by some lawmakers to further curtail the governor’s powers to combat the current crisis, and instilled some goodwill into Cox early in his term in office.
“The governor worked with us even if he didn’t always agree with us,” he said. “I think we ended up in a good place.”