COVID emergencies revealed the sweeping power given to state executives
Small government backers got a rude awakening during the pandemics’ darkest days: state codes and constitutions gave governors and health officials sweeping powers over all sorts of activities, with only limited oversight.
As Stephen Greenhut writes, California Gov. Gavin Newsom exercised that authority with a special kind of zeal:
…in California in particular, governors were happy to dispense with the usual checks and balances and impose rules by executive order and fiat. Some initial rules were defensible during a public-health crisis, but it wasn’t long before elected officials operated like czars – imposing illogical and contradictory restrictions that made no rhyme or reason.
They kept moving the goalposts. One day, counties were on lockdown based on such and such infection rates, but the next day standards changed. In September 2020, for instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a re-opening blueprint based on COVID cases per 100,000 population, but then he refused to let counties that met the standard to loosen up their rules.
“A week after announcing the new blueprint, Newsom announced that the state would actually adjust those raw numbers using an algorithm based on testing rates,” according to an NPR report. “Each county’s case rate gets bumped up or down depending on how their testing rates compare to other counties.” Californians got the sneaking suspicion we simply were subject to the whims of the king.
In Newsom’s case, the state court were just as willing to back-up his assertions of lordly authority. But more worrisome is the precedent set:
Last month, Newsom mercifully lifted the vast majority of edicts and orders – but the precedent has been set for future emergencies. There are no real limits on executive power. Life is returning to normal after two long years, but I might never again complain about our convoluted democratic process.
Democracy is messy, frustrating, and sometimes irrational. But it beats rule-by-decree every time.