New law needed to improve faulty federal, state emergency response

We couldn’t have been fully prepared for Covid-19.

But the virus might have been less deadly, no matter how little medical science knew about it, if government had been better prepared for a major crisis.

The worst events always seem to be a surprise. Apparently, legislators cut spending on preparedness for relatively rare events. In the end, it may cost more later, measured in both lives and dollars.

In March, the Maine Legislature by voice vote gave Gov. Janet Mills broad emergency powers. Acting in haste, lawmakers then left Augusta. Understandable under the circumstances, this hasty action was avoidable.

Federal and state governments have failed to plan well for major emergencies. Few people think about a storm when the sun is shining. But, under little pressure and with the opportunity to consider choices, that’s the best time to develop an emergency plan.

While the lessons of Covid-19 are still fresh, this, too, would be the time to begin planning for the next emergency.

When it comes to public health and safety, the states have prime responsibility and new laws should be adopted at the state level. States could also agree in advance on multi-state cooperation. The federal government has the biggest loudspeaker and the deepest pockets, so its policies are equally important.

One lesson of Covid-19 is that the federal or state government should speak with a single voice. The president or a governor sets policy, but the spokesperson should be the day-to-day manager of the emergency measures.

Different problems may call for different lead managers, and the law should prescribe who they will be. They must be non-partisan with measurable expertise in their fields, not political hacks such as the FEMA chief in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The country has looked at the federal level to Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. In Maine, Dr. Nirav Shah has been left this role. But they have been not been the daily, authoritative spokespersons so badly needed. Experience has shown that such expertise without responsibility does not produce entirely satisfactory results.

Political leaders worry they will be held responsible for failures, and that’s reasonable. But a defined role for the crisis manager would help relieve any need to act for its own sake.

Of course, elected leaders must make the major decisions about government action and take the responsibility for their decisions. They alone can decide on mandates ranging from evacuation in a hurricane to mobilizing the National Guard to quell a riot to requiring stores to close in an pandemic.

Neither Congress nor the Legislature can manage a crisis and set short-term policy. They must give political leaders emergency powers, though only after having previously adopted management rules.

Legislative bodies should limit the length of time during which the president or the governor may exercise emergency powers, subject to legislative renewal. The system of government itself can be threatened if lawmakers cede authority for an unlimited period.

Similarly, Congress and the Legislature should require that the chief executive consult publicly with a small group of legislative leaders before acting under their emergency powers. The only exception would be a crisis that had be resolved in less than a day.

In Congress, the legislative leadership, two members from each house, could form that group. In Maine, the 10-member Legislative Council could serve.

In the Covid-19 situation, government is providing multiple directives, often confusing and sometime contradictory , coming from multiple sources. When information comes from political leaders, the media tends to see it as part of today’s partisan wars.

The crisis managers should be responsible for regular communication with the public. Managers should alert political leaders on what they will announce to the public or if they believe a policy direction is needed. The managers should provide simple data and recommended actions.

It may be overly optimistic to suggest that neutral, factual information might reduce partisanship, but it’s worth a try. At least, those who politicize a serious public threat would be more easily identified.

Ultimately, in a large country, government will be unable to ensure compliance with many of its emergency policies. It is futile to speak of compliance in terms of a non-existent “honor system.”

In an emergency, people need to be motivated to act in their own best interest. That can be accomplished much better than it has in the Covid-19 crisis.

Clear, simple and well-supported information, subject to full media scrutiny and demonstrating a well-planned and nonpartisan government response, is critically important.

Improved emergency legislation is needed. It should be LD 1 for the next Maine Legislature.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.