Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.
1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.
2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.
3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.
4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?
5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.
6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.
(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)
I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.