On Feb. 29, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee issued his first emergency order related to COVID-19. Some 975 days later — on Oct. 31, 2022 — the last of these declarations was lifted, ending pandemic restrictions in Washington.
While critics find fault with Inslee’s response to the pandemic, sober reflection indicates that it was effective. Washington has had among the lowest rates of COVID hospitalizations and deaths since the arrival of the virus.
In addition, the governor’s actions have been legal and have withstood numerous court challenges. State and federal courts have recognized that Washington gives unilateral power to the governor in declaring — and ending — a state of emergency.
Therein lies the problem — a problem that lawmakers should be eager to address but that has become embroiled in partisan power politics. Last year, legislation scaling back the governor’s authority failed to gain traction in Olympia. The same appears likely to happen this year, with Democrats unwilling to assert the Legislature’s status as a co-equal branch of government.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to scale back the emergency powers of the governor — any Washington governor. Now she is concerned that Senate Bill 5063 is unlikely to receive a hearing in the Senate State Government and Elections Committee.
“It’s disappointing that the Democrats have apparently decided so quickly against even discussing the idea of ensuring balance between the legislative and executive branches during whatever state of emergency comes next,” Wilson wrote in a statement.
Indeed, it is disappointing. And it is short-sighted. Assessing the emergency powers of Washington’s governor requires a vision that extends beyond the recent crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As The Columbian has written editorially: “Imagine, for a moment, if a governor decided that gun violence in the state is an emergency and declared an indefinite halt to all gun sales. Or if another governor decided that abortion was an emergency and closed reproductive health clinics. Either scenario is extreme and would invite numerous court challenges, but the absurd examples demonstrate the need to strengthen the checks and balances in state government. No governor of either party should have unfettered power.”
Most important, no governor of either party should have the power to routinely extend emergency declarations. By definition, an emergency calls for quick action that requires unilateral action. But once the initial shock has worn off and emergency services have been put in place, legislators should have a say in extending the emergency declaration. After 60 or 90 or 120 days, a governor should be required to seek the approval of the Legislature.
For his part, Inslee sees no problem with the governor’s authority. “There is a reason the Legislature has given the governor that power,” he told The Columbian’s Editorial Board during a meeting last fall. “The other party, the minority party, had a lot of complaints but no solutions.”
Actually, solutions have been proposed, and Democrats should be willing to subject those proposals to public debate rather than burying them beyond the view of the public. As Wilson said: “The flaws in the emergency-powers law are obvious. If the Democrats have a problem with fixing them, let’s hear it.”
Yes, let’s hear it. Whether talking about Inslee or some future governor, lawmakers should publicly defend their position regarding executive power.