This week a committee of 10 legislative leaders voted to extend the governor’s emergency powers that he had assumed at the beginning of the pandemic in March. The decision didn’t come without a fight, though, and none of the four Republicans on the committee voted for the extension.
This is a change from March, when legislative leaders were united in their approval of the governor’s actions and powers.
But that was before scientific, rational approaches to COVID-19 were turned into a political issue. That was before the right wing paraded through cities in their SUVs demanding states reopen. That was before the president refused to embrace masking and social distancing, before a spring lull turned into a ghastly summer spike, and before 180,000 people died.
In short, everything is different now. We had our brief moment of panicked lucidity, and then sank ever deeper into delusion and division. The magnitude of what we’ve lost over the past six months isn’t even visible yet. It will take us years to really understand it. We’ve lost not just those 180,000 people, each of them loved and unique, but we’ve lost livelihoods, businesses, friendships, chances at human connection, and so much more. Many of the survivors of this awful disease face a lifetime of health issues, too, so the effects of this dreadful year will be felt for decades to come.
Throughout this terrible time, Gov. Ned Lamont has received high marks for his handling of the pandemic. His leadership has helped to prevent another spike in cases, and keep Connecticut relatively safe despite the awful situation elsewhere in the country. It’s remarkable to think that in February everyone was writing off a deeply unpopular Lamont for his failure to institute an equally unpopular tolls plan. When the crisis hit, he rose to the challenge. Nobody is really disputing that. In fact, when pushed, Republicans were reluctant to name any specific executive orders of the governor’s that they disagreed with.
So what were Republicans protesting?
“We think it is time the legislature step up and provide a voice,” Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said during a press conference last week. “This is about our democracy and our representative form of government,” Rep. Bill Petit, R-Plainville, agreed. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, told the Journal Inquirer that his constituents were concerned about “one-person rule” and “unfettered power.”
Which is odd, as I’m one of his constituents and that hasn’t ever come up that I know of here. Who is he talking to?
Maybe it’s the few dozen people who showed up to a protest on the north side of the Capitol last week, demanding the state reopen. Among the attendees were people who refuse to wear masks in Target, and landlords, two of the world’s least sympathetic groups, so I’d hope the Republicans aren’t making any decisions based on them. And yet, it is the Connecticut Republican Party, so it wouldn’t be totally out of character to base policy on despicable conspiracy theorists and rich jerks.
This could certainly be cynical politics. The election is coming up, and Connecticut Republicans have exactly zero to run on. Calling the governor a tyrant for passing a slew of pandemic-related executive orders seems a little much, but it does get certain segments of society excited.
And yet, I think there may be a grain of real concern for democracy and representative government in this whole mess. We should be worried when one man has too much power concentrated in his hands for too long without any real constraints. We should be willing to defend our system of checks and balances, even while acknowledging that during emergencies it’s sometimes prudent to favor quick decision-making over the deliberate and glacial pace of the legislature.
Emergency powers are a dicey thing. They’re easy to abuse, and proper legislative oversight is important when that happens. If the legislature does want to make changes to the governor’s executive orders, they should call themselves back into session and do so.
In the meantime, it would be good for Republicans to be brought into the decision-making process a little more. Perhaps, in exchange, we could ask the Republicans to take that concern for leaders operating above the law and outside of the system of checks and balances, and apply it to the leaders of their own party in Washington.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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