Jacques: Lawmakers, not just gov, have role in crisis

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Just imagine if President Donald Trump would tell members of Congress they shouldn't meet during a nationwide emergency, ultimately leaving his executive powers unchecked. 

All hell would break loose, right? 

Yet in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has waffled on whether she thinks the Legislature should meet Tuesday to extend her emergency declaration to battle COVID-19.

More:Whitmer, GOP leaders at odds over pandemic emergency extension

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders like House Speaker Lee Chatfield have roles to play during a state emergency.

This should not be up for debate. The separation of powers between the three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — exists for a reason, and it’s clearly laid out in the state constitution, which is not the case in every state.

It is the Legislature’s responsibility to grant the governor an extension to an emergency through a resolution. State law makes it clear emergencies only last 28 days, and after that, lawmakers must step in to extend it. This offers an important balance in governmental powers.

More:Jacques: In dire times, liberty falls to safety

Whitmer issued the state of emergency March 10, which means it expires Tuesday.

Republican legislative leaders believe in the role they must play, and they reacted strongly to the suggestion they “abdicate” their authority — even during a pandemic.

Over the weekend House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, wrote a strongly worded letter to House Democratic Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills after she raised “grave concerns” about meeting this week to vote on the resolution.

Chatfield wrote: “The governor’s executive orders in particular are going to continue to have significant ripple effects on our state and the millions of people who live here. We simply cannot abdicate our responsibility to work with her on improving that situation and helping the people we represent.”

Since the 1970s, there have been more than 80 emergencies and disasters declared, and in the 10 instances that an extension was granted, the Legislature made that call.

It should be no different this time.

Chatfield says COVID-19 is a “nonpartisan issue” and that he is committed to partnering with Whitmer in the state’s response to the virus, but that he thinks the Legislature must weigh in.

Lawmakers have reason to fear gathering, as everyone does right now, and they haven’t met since March 17. Since then, Detroit Rep. Isaac Robinson has died from a suspected case of COVID-19, and other Detroit members have tested positive.

And while every precaution should be taken, Chatfield and Senator Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have laid out a careful plan that should preserve the safety of members who are there to vote.

Shirkey says it should be safer than heading to the neighborhood grocery store.

Whitmer has asked for a 70-day extension to her emergency declaration, but the legislative leaders believe that is too long of a request and have agreed on a 23-day extension to take the state of emergency through the end of April, at which point they can re-evaluate the situation.

April 30 is also the day that federal guidelines on social distancing are scheduled to expire.

The declared emergency is what has given Whitmer broad authority to issue wide-ranging orders, including the shelter-in-place order that has effectively brought the economy to a standstill.

Shirkey believes it’s important for lawmakers to meet for several reasons. He thinks it’s a better approach to address the crisis on an incremental basis rather than in “one fell swoop.” And he thinks the Legislature needs to insert itself into the process so that it’s clear to citizens these expansive actions aren’t only being driven by the executive branch.

Michael Reitz, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center, agrees and says just as the governor has designated powers in an emergency there is an important role for the Legislature to play, too.

“The separate branches of government exist for a reason,” Reitz says. “It’s appropriate for the Legislature to be evaluating this right now. It’s good for the people of Michigan to see a uniform front on how to attack these problems.” 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques