If you take state Sen. Steve Newman at his word, he merely wants to recalibrate the relationship between the executive and legislative branches when an emergency strikes – like during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Lynchburg Republican has introduced a bill for next month’s special session that would limit the time an executive order lasts in an emergency to just 30 days. If the General Assembly doesn’t take action, a governor could re-issue the same order for another 30 days, but then no further. (Under current law, executive orders last through the June following the next regular session – or in this case, June 30, 2021.)
Newman has been very critical of the actions of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, since the pandemic’s outbreak. During an interview this week, Newman told me the guv has too often led by press conferences and emergency actions; Northam has issued more than a dozen executive orders since March.
The senator, who’s been in the Assembly since the early 1990s, said Northam hasn’t consulted legislators enough during the pandemic.
“We are supposed to be ruled by a democratic process,” Newman said.
Yet, the Code of Virginia certainly gives the sitting governor lots of authority and deference when an emergency strikes – and no one would claim the number of deaths and illnesses in the state, country and worldwide is anything less than an emergency.
As I write this, The Washington Post’s tally of coronavirus deaths since Feb. 29 was more than 145,000 in the United States. Of that, more than 2,000 deaths occurred in Virginia.
The Assembly is a part-time legislature, too. It’s scheduled to be in session no more than 60 days. The governor is running things full-time.
Besides, the man who oversaw the rewriting of the state Constitution a half-century ago has said that the code is “fairly generous” regarding the duration of executive orders. A.E. Dick Howard told VPM such leeway was a good tool at a governor’s discretion during unpredictable crises.
That gives me confidence Northam isn’t usurping power – and is in fact legally in the driver’s seat to adapt to changing road conditions to fight the pandemic.
You know what else? Given the inept, reluctant, C-Y-A leadership of President Donald Trump since the crisis struck America, it’s critical that Virginia’s governor has the authority to take the initiative. He (or she) in the Executive Mansion in Richmond must ultimately make decisions; that’s what the guv was elected to do.
Northam did meet Tuesday with Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the Trump administration’s top coronavirus advisers. She urged the state to adopt tougher safety standards as recent cases continued to rise in Virginia.
Newman has been peeved by some of Northam’s decisions this year. (He hasn’t been alone. Fellow senators Chap Petersen, a Democrat, and Republican Bill Stanley, both lawyers, have each sued the governor over virus-related restrictions imposed on businesses.) That benefit of hindsight, though, is a luxury someone other than the governor is afforded.
Newman has criticized the closing of businesses, including barbershops. (I grew my hair long and cut it myself as needed, to protect myself and my barber.) Newman didn’t think restrictions in, e.g., Northern Virginia, had to be the same as in Grundy. He quibbled with the way that federal CARES Act money has been spent.
But Newman also repeatedly pushed for Northam to speed up reopening of Virginia in the spring – something the Tweeter-in-Chief had advocated, mainly for political purposes. Northam’s decision to take a measured approach has spared Virginia some of the pain other states, including Florida, are now experiencing.
And sometimes, Newman’s overheated, partisan rhetoric is all too apparent.
He has characterized Northam’s use of executive orders as “dictatorial rule.” That brings to mind Hitler, Mussolini and Kim Jong Un.
When I challenged Newman on this, he said I should think more of “single-rule leadership” instead of dictators. But that’s not what he said. The comment was inflammatory, and ridiculously so.
The prospects for Newman’s bill to get through both the Senate and House, where Democrats hold majorities, are slim. Nor did any Democratic senator ask to co-sponsor the bill, Newman told me.
The United States hasn’t suffered a health crisis of this magnitude since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 675,000 people in the United States and infected roughly one-third of the world’s population.
We’re talking more than a century ago. It’s extremely rare for such an outbreak to harm the nation.
So Newman’s bill is a solution in search of a problem. The commonwealth invests a lot of authority in its governor, from appointment power to broad control in a crisis. It should remain that way.