Legislative Republicans in Pennsylvania said Tuesday existing laws still tip the balance of power toward the governor and they want more constitutional amendments to remedy the situation.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, and Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, said during a news conference in Harrisburg their proposals build upon a voter-approved amendment that limited the governor’s emergency declarations to no more than 21 days, unless extended in agreement with the Legislature.
Although widely recognized as a rebuke of Gov. Tom Wolf’s economic and travel sanctions at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cutler said this concern stems from other policies the administration choose to enact via regulation rather than the legislative process, such as curbing emissions from the power sector or changing standards of care in nursing homes.
“I think anyone would understand the point that a secretary should not have more power than a governor,” Cutler said, referencing statewide masking orders issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “We are the closest part of government to the people, so this is about the people having a say.”
The amendments would limit executive orders and proclamations “which purport to have the force of law” to no more than 21 days, unless extended by the General Assembly, and exempt concurrent resolutions that disapprove of a regulation or order from the presentment clause.
The latter means lawmakers can support a disapproval resolution, such as the one currently circulating for Pennsylvania’s impending entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), without having to hand it over to Wolf for his agreement.
“No single person or branch of government ought to have this much power as it minimizes the will of the people, stifles their voice and ultimately tramples their freedom,” Aument said. “It’s our legislative process that ensures the peoples’ views are heard.”
Critics argue, however, Republicans simply are tipping the scales back in their favor after a tense several years marked by vetoes and lost legal and regulatory challenges to Wolf’s most controversial policy choices, including mask and vaccination mandates, shut down orders, RGGI and nursing home regulations.
Elizabeth Rementer, a Wolf spokesperson, called the amendments a “naked power grab” that defies the separation of powers recognized at both the state and federal levels.
She said Wolf’s executive actions address issues that are “commonsense” and “widely supported,” despite Republican obstruction.
“This is nothing more than a distraction from the real issues Pennsylvanians are facing that Republicans should be addressing; namely, ending the pandemic by encouraging their constituents to get vaccinated, supporting our workforce and growing our economy,” she said. “While they focus on legislative overreach, the governor has prioritized getting all eligible Pennsylvanians vaccinated and protecting and supporting our workforce because these are the issues that will protect and strengthen our commonwealth.”
Notably, she added, vaccination rates in districts represented by Aument and Cutler lag the majority of other regions.
Cutler disagrees with this criticism, telling reporters Tuesday that clawing back some of the executive branch’s powers will “restore” balance, not further disrupt it.
“It’s not about bypassing the process of the veto,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that the people actually have a voice in the process itself. When the process itself is stacked against them, I think that’s fundamentally unfair.”
The proposals must pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before appearing on the ballot. The earliest voters could decide would be 2023.