Who’s the Boss? GOP Lawmakers Continue Fight to Limit Governor’s Emergency Powers

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By Denise Clay

July 24, 2020

When it comes to the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, it’s a tug of war between health and politics.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has scored high marks with a lot of people, including former Governors Ed Rendell (D) and Mark Schweiker (R) for his handling of the Commonwealth’s coronavirus outbreak.

But one group that he hasn’t scored high marks with is the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature, and they don’t care who knows it. 

Shortly after Wolf and Dr. Rachel Levine, the commonwealth’s Secretary of Health, issued the latest round of executive orders made necessary by a slight surge of new coronavirus cases, among significant spikes nationwide, the legislature passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment restricting the governor’s ability to issue executive orders and introduced a bill calling for Wolf’s impeachment. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania back in March, the state has been under an executive order. The first of these orders led to a near total shutdown of the state in order to curb the spread of the virus, forcing everyone into their homes and shutting down restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and other entertainment venues.

The executive orders also led to several annual events, including Philadelphia’s Wawa Welcome America and Odunde festivals, being held virtually. 

Although all of the state’s 67 counties have been in the so-called “green” phase—meaning that indoor and outdoor dining, going to theaters, and outdoor gatherings of no more than 250 people are allowed—since July 3, a surge in coronavirus cases, most notably in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, led to the latest executive order, said Nate Wardle, director of communications for the Department of Health.

The order, which was issued on July 15, tightens regulations on bars and restaurants. After seeing the number of coronavirus cases skyrocket in places like Florida, Texas, and California that had opened these types of establishments earlier, Pennsylvania wanted to keep a larger outbreak at bay, Wardle said.

“We noticed that cases [in Pennsylvania] were picking up a little bit,” he explained. “While we’re still in the ‘green’ phase statewide, we wanted to do some targeted mitigation to keep cases down.”

“We want to keep as many businesses open as possible and help people be able to have as much of a normal life as possible, but we recognize that there might be a time where we need to roll out more mitigation efforts to protect the public,” Wardle added.

RELATED: Pittsburgh Health Expert: It’s Going to Be a While Before Restaurants Can Offer Indoor Dining Safely

But as Republicans in the Legislature have for months—including when they approved a resolution ending Wolf’s executive orders on June 9, which was overruled weeks later by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—the GOP cried foul, passing the constitutional amendment.

“Once again, Gov. Wolf has ignored the voices of the people and refused to work with their representatives, instead choosing to act alone and issue another harmful, unilateral order with far-reaching and devastating implications,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said in a statement. “The governor’s continued overreach and misuse of power is exactly why the House began the bipartisan process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to rein in the governor’s emergency authority and ensure people’s voices are not silenced during times of crisis.”

Benninghoff’s Republican colleague, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (District 12), went one step further, calling on Wolf to step down or be impeached.

“I look forward to your departure, either by your own volition or through your coming impeachment,” Metcalfe said, “so that the branches of Pennsylvania’s government can once again work together to preserve the health, wealth, and safety of our communities while we cooperatively address the mess you have left us with.”

Others, meanwhile, took a more middle-of-the-road approach in their criticism of Wolf. “The politicization of safety protocols and protective measures is exacerbated by unilateral decision making, a lack of transparency, and an absence of collaboration at the state level,” state Rep. Chris Quinn (R-168) said in a statement, condemning early decisions by the governor. He added: “This is not to say that I have all the answers, but simply that more heads are better than one. This is why Gov. Wolf should involve the Legislature.”  

In order for the proposed constitutional amendment to be put before the voters, it has to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions. 

“Cheap Political Points”

Members of the Wolf administration, meanwhile, say they haven’t been acting alone. The legislature has been a part of the process throughout, said Wardle, the spokesman for the Department of Health.

“From a Department of Health perspective, we have constantly been in contact with legislators, receiving their feedback and providing them with updates.”

While the governor understands that Pennsylvanians have been inconvenienced by the executive orders issued by his office since March, using a science-based approach to reopen the state and protecting residents from a virus that has infected over 100,000 Pennsylvanians residents and killed more than 7,000 has been his top priority, said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary.

The rest is just politics.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, House Republicans have continued their efforts to divide the commonwealth and score cheap political points instead of taking the challenge before them seriously,” she said. “The impeachment resolution is just the latest example of the House Republicans wasting time instead of helping to protect Pennsylvanians during this public health crisis.”

In fact, the tactic of Republican-led state legislatures undermining their Democratic governors is happening in other states as well. As The Gander reports, Michigan’s Republican state legislature has made several attempts to limit the emergency powers available to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and future Michigan governors, in order to take control of the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Sure, there is some political gamesmanship at play here, admits Pennsylvania state Rep. Jordan Harris, the House’s Democratic whip. When you’re a Republican in a state that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, making points with the base is important, he said.

But regionalism is also playing a part here. While larger counties like Philadelphia, Allegheny, and Bucks have really felt the virus’ impact, not everyone has.

“It’s urban vs. rural,” Harris said. “There are a lot of people from places with small populations, so there’s not a lot of spread. Some of these places only have 20 or 25 cases. So, they don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

And in the end, it’s keeping the legislature from working on a wide range of bigger issues like criminal justice reform, education, and creating an economy that in the end will benefit everyone, Harris said.

“Pennsylvania is looking for leadership,” he said. 

The July 15 executive order remains in place until further notice.


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