Avella and Dugan: Georgia vs. coronavirus — these principles of democracy made all the difference

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The American colonists rebelled from the king of England for less than what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has done in Michigan.

It’s a cautionary tale, as many politicians have recently crossed the line and forced Americans to live in ways that would have been shocking three months ago.

Whitmer’s actions are merely one example of a politician using dire circumstances to arbitrarily infringe on the freedoms of those they claim to govern. We are co-authoring this column to put a spotlight on this dangerous pattern of government overreach during COVID-19 and to present better solutions.

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Americans never wanted to see small-business owners treated like criminals. We never wanted our parks and beaches to be designated as inherently dangerous. We have never been required to stay away from loved ones who are sick or dying.

As a nation, we understand the severity of the health crisis we now face, but the law should never be used to persecute an individual’s freedom nor to prosecute Americans operating legal businesses to support their families. Charging small-business owners with crimes is just too much, especially when the public wants leaders to pursue a level-headed approach.

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With each passing day, we see politicians like Whitmer singlehandedly picking winners and losers with executive orders. Concerns about such authoritarian cronyism were strongly considered by the Founding Fathers when they framed a government with separate branches of government.

As James Madison wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

Today, the state of Georgia is deserving of attention. The COVID-19 pandemic has been handled in an orderly fashion, for the benefit of the people who live there. Gov. Brian Kemp, while the most influential person in Georgia’s decision-making process, is not the only voice at the table; Georgia law requires the State Senate and House to be full-fledged partners in times of emergency.

Two other features of what was done in Georgia that would serve other states well to match.  First, public health state of emergencies must have the concurrence of the General Assembly. Second, the legislature must maintain the right to terminate the state of emergency at any time.  

On March 14, Kemp issued an executive order declaring a public health state of emergency, calling forth the emergency powers of his office with the compliance of the legislature. On March 16, the legislature convened to ratify Kemp’s order.

At that time, the House and Senate each had the opportunity to concur with or terminate the governor’s declaration. Having determined the gravity of the situation demanded emergency action, the Senate and House quickly agreed.

There are also two other features of what was done in Georgia that would serve other states well to match.

First, public health state of emergencies must have the concurrence of the General Assembly.

Second, the legislature must maintain the right to terminate the state of emergency at any time.

Together, these checks on the executive branch limit what the governor may order and create a partnership where the executive branch of government is agile enough to meet citizens’ needs without legislation.

On April 8, Kemp extended the public health state of emergency through May 13, under the same set of conditions as the first — legislature concurring and retaining the right to end things at any time. Again, on April 30, the governor extended the state of emergency through June 12 under the same set of conditions. On May 12, the governor issued an executive order rolling back some of the safety restrictions established for COVID-19.

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Former President Harry Truman stated that his incoming successor, Dwight Eisenhower, would issue an order and wonder why nothing happened. Truman believed that the five-star general would struggle to establish consensus outside his own orbit. Truman remarked it would not be long until Eisenhower learned that without a partnership with Congress, not much would get done.

In these present days, too many politicians are turning Truman’s words upside down. Let this sink in: a number of states are now under indefinite executive orders, with no mechanism for a legislative check and balance. For many states with part-time assemblies, legislators cannot even convene for oversight or to pass helpful legislation without an express invitation from the governor.

The separation of powers is vital to American democracy. The separation of powers accepts that government is impacted by the realities of human nature and the pursuit of self-interest. It works because the people are in charge.

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Without the basic protections deemed so valuable by America’s founders, domination by a single leader will ensue – we’ve seen as much in Michigan and other unfortunate instances across the nation.

Georgia showed that an effective response is possible without tyranny. The separation of powers is one of the principles that led to America’s greatness. It works, and it’s how it’s done in Georgia.

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Republican Mike Dugan serves as majority leader in the Georgia State Senate.