Opinion: Why Washington state needs emergency powers reform

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center offers thoughts and a video on the need for emergency powers reform

Jason Mercier
Washington Policy Center

Washington state ranks among the bottom for states that provide legislative oversight of executive emergency powers. What’s Washington doing wrong? We explore the problem and need for reform in this new video: 

In an emergency, governors need broad powers to act fast. Legislative bodies inevitably take longer to assemble and act than a single executive, so they temporarily delegate their power to the executive in emergencies.  But these powers are supposed to be transferred for a limited period of time.

Jason Mercier
Jason Mercier

For example, in Wisconsin a state of emergency cannot exceed 60 days unless it is extended by a joint resolution of the legislature, and in Minnesota, a governor must call a special session if a “peace time” emergency lasts longer than 30 days.  

When situations last for extended periods, longer term policies need to be implemented and the legislature needs to debate risks, benefits and trade-offs of various approaches. They may end up passing the very policies the governor would prefer to see implemented, but they do it after deliberation as representatives of the people and do it in a public process.

It’s the legislature, not the governor, that is charged with making law, and the governor who is charged with implementing the laws passed by the legislature.

Yet Washington state ranks among the bottom for states that provide legislative oversight of executive emergency powers. Why? The state bestows upon the governor the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists and when it ceases to exist. It’s hard to get the consent of the governed when the executive has become inaccessible.

In response to the pandemic, Washington allowed public construction during early restrictions but prohibited private construction. It allowed childcare centers to open but closed schools. It deemed big box stores as “essential” and kept them open while small businesses were ordered closed. Had the legislature been involved in creating policy it’s doubtful we would have seen these and other seemingly arbitrary policies and unlikely we would have been the 48th state to reopen.

Whether 14, 30, 45 or 60 days, at some point the executive branch should be required to receive permission from the legislative branch to continue making far-reaching policies under an emergency order. No matter how much you might agree with a governor, our system is not meant to be the arbitrary rule of one.

Jason Mercier is the director for the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.

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