Fed up with Gov. Tom Wolf’s reliance on executive orders to implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies, set labor policy and advance initiatives to fight climate change, Republican leaders on Tuesday introduced a set of proposals designed to chip away at the governor’s existing executive power, which GOP lawmakers say will help balance the scales between the executive and legislative branches.
The move marks the latest attempt by Republicans to use constitutional amendments to rein in the authority of the governor’s office after advancing a slate of proposals that rolled back gubernatorial emergency powers earlier this year. Those separate constitutional amendments, which limit emergency declarations to 21 days, were ultimately approved by voters in May, and now the General Assembly’s Republican leaders are looking to bring the rest of the state constitution in line with those changes.
“Unfortunately, many of our laws and what I’ll refer to as administrative laws … are tilted heavily toward the executive. This is all about restoring the balance of power,” said House Speaker Bryan Cutler, who is sponsoring the measures alongside state Sen. Ryan Aument.
The proposals would place new time limits on executive orders and remove the governor’s ability to veto measures seeking to block regulations.
Under one proposed amendment, executive orders with the force of law would expire after 21 days unless the General Assembly votes to extend the regulation. The other amendment would exempt resolutions seeking to disapprove of a regulation from presentment requirements, meaning a governor would no longer have the ability to veto measures attempting to disapprove of – and block – state regulations from taking effect.
“Unchecked, unilateral executive orders are not an appropriate way to govern in a civil society, because it strips the people of their voice and moves decision making into the hands of a single person,” Aument said.
The proposals would need to be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in back-to-back legislative sessions, and then approved by the voters in a ballot referendum, in order to take effect. A governor has no ability to sign or veto proposed amendments to the state constitution, meaning the proposals would bypass Wolf’s desk entirely.
In recent years, Wolf has relied on the regulatory process to advance priorities that have been unable to gain traction in the legislature. In 2019, the Democratic governor signed an executive order directing his administration to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power plants. Wolf has also spearheaded regulatory changes to update the state’s nursing home regulations and expand overtime eligibility, though the latter measure was repealed this year in a budget agreement with Republican lawmakers.
In the instance of RGGI, Republicans and some Democrats have repeatedly tried to block the carbon pricing regulation from taking effect to no avail, as Wolf has had the power to veto legislation looking to halt the measure’s progress. This session, lawmakers have advanced a resolution disapproving of the regulation, which Wolf also has the power to veto.
Under the new constitutional changes being proposed by Cutler and Aument, Wolf would lose the ability to use his veto pen on regulatory disapproval resolutions.
Beth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, said the amendments amount to “legislative overreach” and that Wolf has taken executive action on issues supported by Pennsylvanians, ranging from environmental efforts and health care reforms to workforce development and efforts to eliminate sexual harassment.
“These constitutional amendments are a naked power grab by Republicans in the General Assembly, and would completely upend the separation of powers that has guided the commonwealth for its entire history,” Rementer said. “The current system – where the legislature passes laws and the governor directs the executive branch in the implementation of those laws – is similar to the separation of powers at the federal level as contained in the U.S. Constitution.”
Both Cutler and Aument said the proposed constitutional amendments introduced Tuesday would force greater collaboration between Wolf and lawmakers and allow voters to weigh in on the debate around executive power.
Cutler, however, expressed caution at the prospect of allowing voters to directly introduce ballot initiatives, saying that states that do so often experience a “lack of stability” when it comes to policies put on the ballot. “Some of the other states that have them, you end up with initiatives on the ballot that, quite frankly, whipsaw people back and forth,” he said.
But while Republicans are setting their sights on the balance of power in the state, the Wolf administration sees the move as a distraction.
“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,” Rementer said.