Pa. House panel moves to end Wolf’s executive powers amid pandemic

Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, addresses the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee Thursday as it takes a vote to end Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID-19 disaster declaration. (House video stream screenshot)

(*This story was updated at 1:18 pm and 2:34 pm on 5/21/20, with additional information) 

A state House panel approved ending Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster declaration outright in a near-party line vote Thursday morning.

The vote comes hours after the Republican-controlled House failed to muster the votes to overturn Wolf’s veto of a bill that would have allowed hundreds of businesses across the commonwealth to reopen. 

The legislative cancellation, authorized by the same state law that Wolf cited to begin his pandemic response, must now pass the whole House. 

It would then require the Senate’s approval to officially end Wolf’s legal decree, which his administration has used to justify everything from providing liability protection to health professionals to shutting down businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can guarantee there will be a very spirited debate,” Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware and chair of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which took the vote, said Thursday.

The proposal was approved by the committee 16-9. One Democrat joined with the committee’s 15 Republicans to advance the measure.

The Wolf administration did not reply to a request for comment by press time.

*As written, the state’s emergency law states that the “General Assembly, by concurrent resolution, may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time.”

But Wolf will have a chance to veto the proposal, according to the state’s constitution.

In a press conference Thursday, Wolf said that from a “constitutional, democratic perspective, why” the measure “would make any sense.”

“I do have the power to disapprove, and I intend to,” Wolf added.

Wolf said he had used the power available to him to quickly respond crisis. Ending the disaster would also pit at risk $1.5 billion in federal funding, he added.

But Republicans, like Rep. Mark Gillen, of Berks County, did not see money as the object of their worries.

“If federal dollars were at risk and I was given the choice between constitutional rights and federal dollars, I’d say keep your money” Gillen said before Thursday’s vote.

‘God-given rights’

The governor’s broad use of police power has been backed by both the state and U.S. Supreme Court, and most polling has shown it popular.

The law itself states that “the Governor is responsible for meeting the dangers to this Commonwealth and people presented by disasters.”

But legislative Republicans have instead pushed to be a co-equal branch, and have spent much of the past month passing piecemeal proposals to reopen industry after industry over Wolf’s objections.

All have been subject to Wolf’s veto, but the governor has also implemented some as executive orders to reopen construction or real estate. 

The measure ending Wolf’s disaster order was sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon. When he introduced it in mid-March, there were under 100 cases of the disease in Pennsylvania and Wolf had yet to order businesses to close.

“Our duty as a co-equal branch of government is to serve as a check on that authority in case that judgment creeps into overreach or violates the rights of Pennsylvania citizens,” Diamond wrote in the March 17 memo. “By having a termination resolution ready to go, we will be prepared to act if that occurs.”

In the two months since, cases grew to 64,000, with thousands of fatalities. In that time period, Wolf ordered school’s closed until September, shutdown whole swaths of the economy, and has begun the process of reopening counties in batches where the virus appears to be under control. 

New cases have been on the decline since April, and Diamond argued that the time has come to revoke Wolf’s executive authority.

From contact tracing that he says threatens citizens’ protections against illegal search and seizure to the two million unemployed unable to “pursue their happiness” through business closures and stay-at-home orders, Diamond charged that Wolf’s powers jeopardized Pennsylvanians’ “God-given rights.”

A second wave?

Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, asked Diamond what would stop Pennsylvanians from packing a stadium in Philadelphia, still a hot spot for new coronavirus cases even as the statewide total declined.

“I believe Pennsylvanians have been fairly warned, and I think we need to have faith in our citizens,” Diamond replied.

Burns also pointed out that Wolf could simply re-up the declaration as soon as it was canceled.

“That would certainly be within his rights, but I would not want to be a governor flying in the face of the people’s direct representatives,” Diamond said.

Burns, whose western Pennsylvania district heavily backed President Donald Trump in 2016, ended up being the Democrat who broke ranks and joined Republicans to end Wolf’s declaration. 

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, also faces a Trump-leaning electorate.

Sainato has voted for many reopening proposals, including to override Wolf’s veto of a reopening bill Wednesday night. But yanking Wolf’s authority midstream was a step too far for the Democrat.

“Open up the whole economy in one shot? I don’t believe that’s safe,” Sainato said, citing the risk of a second wave of the virus.

Instead, he asked the committee to take another look in two weeks when Wolf’s disaster declaration, which would have expired in two weeks, was up for renewal.

In a party line vote, his ask was declined.