The Coming Test for the Legislature

A crisis like the one we have been facing is a great challenge for the executive branch, which must respond swiftly to an unprecedented situation. Though lawmakers may issue grave statements, direction comes from a president, governor, or mayor; under the pressures of the moment, legislators largely follow their lead.

The great test of the legislative branch will come after the crisis has passed. That is particularly true in Connecticut, where the coronavirus epidemic shuttered the General Assembly in the middle of its session. By the time it gets back to work, the chance to move bills through the normal legislative process will have passed.

The official purpose of this year’s session—known as the short session and confined to three months—was necessary adjustments to the existing biennial budget. Due to plunging tax revenues and inevitable increases in health care, economic development, social services, and other costs, rebalancing the current budget would be challenge enough for the General Assembly.

Beyond that, wisdom would suggest that the legislature do as little as possible. No post-crisis special session could spend the months required to approve legislation by regular means.

But the legislature could still pass a full load of legislation, by combining many proposals into a few omnibus bills, then putting them before a special session by emergency certification. In effect, it would take the worst of current legislative practice—the dread implementer bill, offered at the very end of session, when legislators have no time to examine its numerous and varied contents and the public has no chance to weigh in—and make it this year’s standard procedure.

There’s reason to fear that this dangerous approach might be adopted. In an article in the Waterbury Republican-American, Speaker of House Joe Aresimowicz indicated that one possible response to the curtailed session “is consolidating various bills that have been selected for emergency certification and conducting hearings on these combined measures.”

Freshman Senator Will Haskell was quoted saying that he is pushing for “out-of-the-box solutions,” asking leaders to consider using emergency certification process to pass what is described as ‘one giant bill’ with a simple up or down vote.

Approving dozens or even hundreds of unrelated proposals in this manner would be the biggest mistake the General Assembly could make. Good bill-writing is hard enough under normal circumstances; this dramatically expedited process would guarantee adoption of many ill-conceived and poorly drafted initiatives. Worse, it would mean that controversial ideas could be included in an omnibus bill, giving opponents little chance to organize public pressure against individual proposals.

At a time when unity is essential to recovery, use of this crisis to promote an ideological agenda would sharpen the partisan divide, and further undermine faith in government and in our elected representatives.

It was in an essay on the proper response to epidemics that Hippocrates famously wrote, ‘First, do no harm.’ To that end, the General Assembly should confine itself to the considerable budget work at hand, and leave non-essential proposals for another session.