From Pennsylvania to California, Americans are relearning what Lord Acton warned about over two centuries ago: power corrupts. Giving governors “emergency powers” to fight COVID-19 is destroying our civil liberties and endangering our lives.
The stench from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home carnage and months-long cover up is finally causing even Democratic pols in Albany to turn against him. At least 14 are now joining Republicans to demand Cuomo be stripped of his emergency COVID-19 powers.
And not a day too soon. Cuomo used those powers to shut restaurants and other businesses, close schools and even impose heavy-handed restrictions on houses of worship until the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked him. Emergency powers should last for a few weeks or maybe a month — just long enough to keep the public safe until the legislature can swing into action. Instead, Cuomo has wielded emergency powers for 11 months — with disastrous consequences for businesses, workers, schoolchildren and the elderly.
Last March 25, the Cuomo administration ordered nursing homes to accept hospital patients treated for COVID-19. Then, for months afterward, he lied and covered up news about the thousands of deaths that resulted when the virus raced through the homes. In January, state Attorney General Letitia James, a Cuomo protege, revealed the true death toll in an investigative report. Last week, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted that the administration withheld the truth to avoid a federal Department of Justice investigation.
The Republican minority in the state legislature has been trying repeatedly to rein in Cuomo’s powers, but the Democratic majority refused, preferring to collect their paychecks for doing nothing while the governor called all the shots.
Now, with the public demanding accountability, some Democrats finally are on board.
Republicans want more — impeachment — but that’s not going to happen. Convicting and removing the governor would require an improbable 2/3 vote in the democratically controlled state Senate.
It’s been a hundred years since a New York governor was impeached, though in 2008 lawmakers were readying articles of impeachment against Governor Eliot Spitzer for his involvement in a prostitute ring. Spitzer chose to resign.
Stripping Cuomo of his emergency powers is politically doable, and the public would benefit. That would put the state legislature back in charge, ensuring that whatever actions are taken to fight COVID-19 are more reasonable than what Cuomo did. It’s hard to imagine that state lawmakers would vote to shutter churches, destroy businesses and close down schools in their own districts. They’d have to answer to their own angry neighbors and constituents. Albany is largely insulated from that.
Even when governors behave more honorably than Cuomo, prolonged emergency powers are a bad idea. After all, if government by one person produced wiser decisions than government by the people’s elected lawmakers, we’d opt for autocratic government all the time. Why choose it during crises?
Eleven months into the pandemic, the public across the country is revolting against governors whose emergency powers have allowed them to act like autocrats. Over half the states are in the process of passing laws barring governors from closing businesses and schools in a future emergency. Pennsylvania is considering a law to limit a governor’s disaster powers to 21 days. Kentucky is limiting them to 30 days, and Indiana is imposing a 60-day limit.
Laughably, many of these governors are pushing back, even going to court to hold onto their autocratic powers. They argue that in emergencies, the democratic process is too slow and messy. Don’t buy it. Like Cuomo, they’re relishing power.
In California, a recall effort against Governor Gavin Newsom has amassed more than 1.5 million signatures. Newsom sparked outrage not only with his lockdown orders but also his hypocrisy. When he got caught attending a posh dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, the recall effort gained steam.
Sadly, New York state doesn’t provide for recall, and one-party rule makes impeachment impossible. The public is stuck with Cuomo at least until the next gubernatorial election, nearly two years off. That’s why state lawmakers must act now to remove King Cuomo’s emergency powers. As the political sages teach, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
PHOTO: Governor Gavin Newsom speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).