The Washington Senate last week opted for milquetoast legislation to curb the power of the governor. Rather than adding some balance to the checks on executive power, the legislation would have little impact.
After two years of emergency orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the Legislature should be more involved in implementing and continuing such orders. But Senate Bill 5909 falls short of that laudable goal.
Since the start of the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee has issued a series of orders ranging from business shutdowns to mask mandates. He has been aggressive in working to protect public health, and those actions have largely been effective. Per capita, Washington has had among the lowest infection rates and fatality rates throughout the pandemic.
But an effective response should not be a license giving Inslee or any future governor carte blanche in dealing with a crisis. While the executive branch must be able to wield power in an emergency, the Legislature must have input once the initial shock has worn off.
Senate Bill 5909 authorizes the majority and minority leaders of each legislative chamber to terminate an emergency order after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session. While that makes it easier than calling a special session to address a calamity, it will have no real impact. The bill calls for all four leaders to agree on rescinding a governor's emergency action — and that is unlikely to happen; members of the governor's party are likely to remain in lockstep.
Inslee recognizes this. After SB 5909 passed the Senate, a statement from his office said, "We're pleased this legislation does not hinder our state's current response to COVID."
The need to rein in a governor's powers goes beyond Inslee and beyond the COVID response. 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."
Senate Bill 5909 passed by a 29-20 vote, with Republicans in opposition. Republican Senate Leader John Braun of Centralia told The (Tacoma) News Tribune: "This bill does not fix the problem. It allows the majority to do exactly what has been done for two years, which is nothing."
That is not adequate for the people of Washington. And it should not be adequate for lawmakers, who must insist upon having input regardless of which party occupies the governor's office.
SB 5909 now goes to the House of Representatives. In that chamber earlier this session, House Bill 1772 called for stronger checks on the governor's power but failed to make it out of committee. Southwest Washington Reps. Brandon Vick and Vicki Kraft were among the co-sponsors.
The COVID pandemic has brought attention to gubernatorial power in several states, bringing previously inconceivable issues to the forefront. Ideally, Washington will settle on a system that allows a governor to declare an emergency but requires the Legislature to renew that emergency. To lead us to that place, legislators must stand up and exert their power.