If there’s one thing that’s become clear this spring, it’s that at both the state and federal levels, the legislative branch has increasingly abdicated its responsibilities and ceded authority to the executive branch.

This was evident back in March, when rather than crafting a bill that guaranteed oversight of the administration, the Legislature wrote a bill at the last minute that simply handed the Mills administration a whole bunch of new powers and got out of town as fast as possible.

They may have done so with the assumption that they’d be able to get back to work by now, or that Gov. Mills would be in constant communication and consultation with them on a bipartisan basis. Sadly, neither of those things have happened: Janet Mills hasn’t looped in legislators on her decisions, and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson haven’t shown much interest in getting back to work.

When the Legislature crafted the emergency bill expanding Mills’ powers to cope with the crisis, they should have put more thought into it, on both sides of the aisle. Both parties were in a prime position to demand more oversight of her response, but they were seemingly more interested in finishing their work as quickly as they could.

The Democrats, unsurprisingly, had little interest in providing oversight of the Mills administration – they were more than happy to hand her any new powers they could. Since they’re in the majority, they were probably going to get their way.

But Republicans could have put up more of a fight. They could have at least attempted to insist on a bipartisan commission to work with the administration on a response, but they didn’t. They also could have further limited the emergency powers they granted her, but they didn’t.

The Mills administration has put time limits on her executive orders, but they’ve been extended several times already. The recent last-minute extension of the ban on indoor dining in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties was especially irksome to legislators from those areas, who’d been under the impression that those counties would reopen with the rest of the state on June 1.

It even led to a bipartisan letter from Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, and Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, urging the administration to allow rural towns in Androscoggin County to reopen. The Mills administration ignored that call, just as it rejected a recent bipartisan call from the Legislature to allow it to advise her on the response. It’s not a surprise that Gov. Mills would be resistant to oversight of the executive branch; most governors and presidents are. The surprise is that even her own party is beginning to be less trusting of her.

Maine Democrats could well just be putting on a show for public consumption. While they wrote a letter to the administration, a letter is easy to ignore, and they haven’t followed it up with any kind of action. Instead, they’ve remained adjourned, despite pleas from their Republican colleagues to come back in to session. Whenever Sara Gideon and Troy Jackson decide that it’s finally time for them to return to Augusta, there are a number of concrete steps they could take to ensure that governors are provided with better oversight in the future.

First and foremost, they could create rules to allow the Legislature to operate remotely throughout a state of emergency. The U.S. House recently took this step, but it was done as a partisan rule change, and the U.S. Senate hasn’t followed suit.

If both parties and both chambers work together, they should be able to find a solution that works given today’s technology – even in a large, rural state. That would allow the Legislature to not only have committee meetings, but also to debate and discuss legislation even if they couldn’t meet in person. It’s stunning that at both the state and federal levels, this system doesn’t already exist as a backup, but it needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

The Legislature could also set a statutory timetable on a state of emergency as well as on executive orders. They should automatically expire after a certain period unless the Legislature approves an extension. With the combination of the remote voting system, this would enable the Legislature to have continual input even during a crisis. If the remote option were available during emergencies, it would ensure that our entire government could keep functioning during one – not just the executive branch.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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