Gov. Tom Wolf gets reminder of his role
Gov. Tom Wolf was reminded by Commonwealth Court that he can’t legislate by executive order.
Gov. Tom Wolf got a rude reminder recently that he is not Barack Obama; just because something flies in Washington, there’s no guarantee it will get off the ground in Harrisburg.
The bucket of cold water was tossed by Commonwealth Court.
It soaked Wolf’s attempt to govern by executive order.
Bypassing Congress has been a hallmark of Obama’s reign. You may recall, for example, that right after he was rebuked by voters in the 2014 congressional election, the president didn’t sulk or pout. Instead, he sent a defiant message to resurgent Republicans by announcing that he would bypass Congress and act on his own to allow up to 4 million undocumented immigrants legal work status, and give an additional 1 million protection from deportation. It was one of the most widereaching executive actions in history.
Wolf, a Democrat, also finds himself saddled with a General Assembly dominated by Republicans.
So, taking a page from the Obama playbook, he tried issuing his own executive order. In a sop to Big Labor, he tried to force unionization on thousands of home care workers.
But Commonwealth Court, in a ruling handed down Sept. 22, said that the governor had exceeded his constitutional authority. Why? Because his executive order was tantamount to “de facto legislation.”
Younger readers, who have grown up in a political environment that focuses almost exclusively on the president, may not readily grasp what’s wrong with this. Isn’t Congress just something that interferes with the executive? And, likewise, isn’t the legislature just a building full of politicians who say “no” to the governor?
But, as those of us who were subjected to classes like “civics” or “POD” (Problems of Democracy) in high school were taught, our government is supposed to be made up of three co-equal branches: a legislature, an executive and a judiciary. In fact, that’s the order in which they’re listed in both the state and U.S. constitutions: • the legislature makes the laws;
• the executive sees that the laws are implemented and enforced;
• the judiciary resolves questions and disputes arising from the laws.
Executive orders undo this delicate balance by enabling the president or governor to ignore the elected legislators.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served from 1933 until his death in 1945, holds the all-time record for executive orders: 290.
Since then, his Democratic successors have been more inclined to issue them than have Republican presidents, but leaders of both political stripes use them.
But Wolf’s Executive Order 2015-05, which tried to create a means for home health care workers to unionize, was erased by Commonwealth Court. The judges ruled that the Wolf order “invades the relationship between a direct care worker and the employer participant who receives personal services in his or her home.”
“According to our constitution, each branch of government has specific duties, and the executive’s job is to implement or enforce the law, not make law,” said Rep. Mauree Gingrich, a Lebanon County Republican who chairs the House Labor and Industry Committee. “This is what we have been saying all along: The governor may not legislate by executive order.”
Wolf issued that order just two months after taking office. It clearly was his way of sending a message to both friends and foes that he intended to use whatever means available to advance his progressive agenda.
Since then, Wolf has been schooled in political humility. It started with the budget last year when the Republican leadership held its troops in line for nine months while dickering with the governor.
The Commonwealth Court ruling is an important second lesson, reminding Wolf that he was elected governor of an American state, not the strongman dictator of a banana republic.