photo of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (center) courtesy Ruben Diaz Jr.
New York is notorious for its corruption-prone politics, the “three men in a room” who exert near-total control over the state’s policies and pocketbook.
Those three “men,” though not always men, have always exerted outsize influence on what gets done in Albany. Now, with the full support of their own caucuses, two of those three parties – the leaders of each house of the state Legislature – have declared themselves superfluous when the stakes are highest. In New York, emergency legislative, as well as executive, powers are now fully vested in Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the last man standing.
As part of a $40 million emergency appropriation to address the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state, lawmakers this week handed Cuomo expanded powers to suspend all or parts of existing laws, and authority for the first time to enact new law by executive decree. Such enactments will only be good for periods up to 30 days – unless the governor renews them. And the expanded authority itself is scheduled to expire on April 30, 2021 – unless the governor and legislators later agree to extend it. Or perhaps unless the governor himself uses his new authority to declare the legislative sunset is void.
Some might argue that this arrangement is justified under the ancient slogan that desperate times call for desperate measures. In a press conference, Cuomo himself contended that “These are uncharted territories. Government has to respond.” Yet the new virus, worrying as it is, hardly qualifies as having created desperate times in New York. By Thursday the state, with some 20 million residents, had recorded exactly 22 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness that the virus causes. At this writing, no one in New York had died of the disease.
I would suggest that the more relevant philosophy came from Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, who was President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff at the time, once declared that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
The prior law allowed the governor to respond to the “occurrence or imminent threat” of a specified disaster. The amendment expands his power to include an “impending or urgent threat” of “wide spread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made causes.” The law proceeds to list examples of such threats as “fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, high water, landslide, mudslide, wind, storm, wave action, volcanic activity, epidemic, disease outbreak,” (a new addition), “air contamination, terrorism, cyber event, blight, drought, infestation, explosion, radiological accident, nuclear, chemical, biological, or bacteriological release, water contamination, bridge failure or bridge collapse.”
If you are still unsure how a governor might stretch this broad but not all-inclusive list to justify and unilaterally enact almost any policy, I offer you two words: climate change.
Lawmakers did reserve the right to “terminate by concurrent resolution executive orders issued under this section at any time.” That’s comforting, unless you consider that a governor intent on protecting his power might also, for example, declare the Capitol building unsafe to accommodate a meeting of the Legislature. Or he could quarantine the city of Albany.
After Cuomo waived a mandatory three-day waiting period, lawmakers passed the measure on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after it was introduced. If the Legislature can move this quickly to pass a bill declaring itself irrelevant, couldn’t it require the governor to call emergency sessions and submit any unforeseen legislative requirements to itself, the body that New Yorkers actually elect to write their laws?
While Cuomo has a well-earned reputation as a control freak, he is not a genuine despot-in-waiting. The law helpfully notes that his new powers are circumscribed by federal law and federal and state constitutional limits, anyway.
Instead, this move amounts to a governor who likes to get his own way with the least amount of fuss interacting with a Legislature whose members, for the most part, are little more than extras in the state’s political drama. If you don’t have much power in the first place, there really isn’t much to surrender. And if you are a New York legislative leader, you hold on to your position by keeping your members fat and happy – and by avoiding accountability for any disasters or other blameworthy events.
This is why New York’s lawmakers have determined that when the going gets tough, they will gladly get going and let the governor take responsibility for whatever happens. Just when I think that state’s political rot can advance no further, I discover how wrong I am.