Pennsylvania voters are being asked to decide two ballot measures which could have far-reaching and permanent harmful repercussions for generations of Pennsylvanians.
The first ballot question would reduce the votes needed for the Legislature to end a governor’s disaster emergency declaration with a simple majority vote. The second would limit emergency declarations to 21 days and require legislative approval to extend them.
A “Yes” vote on either would be a mistake.
Proponents of these measures are counting on the public to view them as a referendum on Governor Wolf’s handling of the Covid pandemic. They are not, and voters would be ill-advised to look at them through that lens.
Those advocating the changes will tell you they are needed to prevent executive overreach during an emergency.
But that protection is already present in existing law, which gives the legislature the power to overturn a disaster declaration with a veto-proof majority vote. The current majorities in the state chambers simply could not muster enough votes to do that. So now they want to lower the threshold, change the rules, and allow base politics to take over disaster management.
In our view, substituting executive overreach with legislative overreach is not a sound approach to handling a catastrophe.
We have heard it said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Who truly thinks a committee can do a better job at quick, efficient responses to an emergency?
Emergency powers have been the realm of the executive for a reason. Disasters need a single focal point for prompt and effective decision-making. The legislative process, with all of the horse-trading (should that be camel-trading?), committee hearings, floor amendments, first readings, second readings, and laying of bills on tables, is designed for methodical, deliberative, and crafting of well-thought-out, finely-tuned, and clever legislative solutions to deep civic issues. And, even then, it manages to so often fail miserably despite all of the time the process takes to unwind.
There is nothing in our experience that gives us any comfort that the legislature can do better when it does not have the luxury of months or multiple sessions to process all the nuance of a situation. Emergency decisions so often need to be made moment to moment in response to sudden changes in the contours of the situation – whether it be a mega snow storm crippling the Poconos, torrential rains flooding out homes, schools, and infrastructure in the lowlands and valleys, or hurricane winds ripping apart homes and shutting down power grids for millions over a holiday weekend.
For better or ill, the system most likely to be effective in serving the needs of the community in an emergency is exactly the one we have now – an executive branch making (we hope) thoughtful decisions informed by the expertise of the agencies created to deal with whatever the subject matter of the next disaster. But one which is checked by the power of the legislature to halt a course of action so obviously wrong-headed that it speaks with one, veto-proof voice.
Anything less would be to endorse the politicization of catastrophe.
Because “anything less” is precisely what the proposed ballot questions offer, voters should look forward with concern about the next disaster, and not backward reacting to something they might not have liked about the last one. Vote “No!” on question one, and “No!” again, on question two.
After all, Pennsylvania is not the best environment for a camel.