Reps. Drew MacEwen and Mike Chapman: The bipartisan case for putting limits on emergency powers

The 2021 legislative session concluded on Sunday. There were several bipartisan successes that will greatly benefit Washingtonians and communities across our state, and there were a few outcomes in which our opinions diverge.

One issue that we agree was a missed opportunity by the Legislature was emergency-powers reform. 

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on our state, tragically ending lives and devastating livelihoods. As state representatives, we have heard unimaginable stories of heartbreak from our constituents.

The pandemic also has expanded the role of state government in our lives in ways we never imagined. On Feb. 29, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. Nearly 14 months later, we are still under this order with no end in sight. On May 3, more restrictions could be placed on counties across our state.    

For background, our state laws related to emergency powers allow the governor to waive or suspend laws and prohibit certain activities. The waivers or suspensions of laws are limited to 30 days and require approval from the Legislature to extend. Of greater consequence, the prohibitions can last longer if a state of emergency is in effect and do not require legislative approval to remain in place.

Compared to most other states, our Legislature plays a relatively limited role during emergencies. In fact, Washington state has become an outlier. 

Our executive branch needs the ability to respond quickly to pandemics, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other emergencies. However, there must be limits. Washingtonians were not meant to be governed by emergency orders or the decisions of one person for months on end.

It is imperative for the Legislature to restore proper balance to state government. That’s why we introduced House Bill 1557.

The bipartisan legislation is designed to ensure adequate legislative involvement in long-lasting states of emergency. Specifically, it would cause a state of emergency to expire after 60 days unless extended by the Legislature. The measure would also allow the Legislature to terminate a state of emergency on its own authority.

These reforms would bring us in line with what other states are already doing. More importantly, they would provide all 147 state lawmakers — and the people they represent — a proactive role during uncertain and unprecedented times.

As we think about emergency powers reform, the voices of our constituents are critically important. Our hearts break for the single mom who is having trouble finding child care because her child cannot go to school, the small business owner who has not been the same since his dream was labeled nonessential, the grandmother who has been unable to see her grandchildren and for so many others.

These voices reflect a broader context of public health and what the decisions of state government have meant for mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, crime, the isolation of seniors, and the social, emotional and academic growth of our young people. Their stories belong in the legislative process, where they can be heard, understood and weighed by state lawmakers.

We acknowledge Gov. Inslee and his administration have handled many aspects of the pandemic response well. However, there have been failures — including the delivery of unemployment benefits and the initial vaccine rollout. Many of these decisions were made behind closed doors with little or no input from the Legislature. In fact, we have often learned of new policies when or after the media was informed.  

If given the opportunity, it is possible state lawmakers would have enacted many of the same policies the governor imposed. But those decisions would have been made after ideas were vetted, debated, and refined through a process that included the public. And they would have likely resulted in more support from parts of the state where the governor’s decisions have been unpopular.  

The coronavirus is serious, and the need for an effective, coordinated response remains important. But this should not prevent the Legislature from examining how our state government should respond to emergencies in the future.

House Bill 1557 will carry forward to the 2022 legislative session, as will this important debate. We hope a majority of the Legislature is more receptive to the idea next year. This conversation between Democrats and Republicans is happening in many other legislatures around the county. It should be happening in ours as well.  

As published in The Seattle Times

State Representative Drew MacEwen, 35th Legislative District
427A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 868-6304 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000