Is House Republicans’ petition to end public health order more reckless or feckless?

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

After spending months arguing that Gov. John Bel Edwards unlawfully enacted COVID-19 restrictions and describing themselves as the guardians of freedom, Louisiana’s Republican House members were the epitome of conviction and resistance last week when they produced a sternly worded petition that puts the governor in time out.

If it ever goes into effect (or has it already gone into effect and expired?) that petition would suspend all of the governor’s current public health restrictions for a whole seven days. Those House members would have done just as well to replace their petition with a much shorter document:  “You go back to your mansion and think about what you did, young man! And next week, we’ll let you get back to what you were doing.”

Seriously? A seven-day interruption of the COVID-19 restrictions? If the 65 House Republicans who signed it wanted to appease their constituents who they say have been complaining about having to wear masks and about not getting to pack themselves tight inside restaurants, bars and football stadiums, then how do they explain to those constituents that they lifted those — for a week?

The strategy appears to be to bury the length of the demanded suspension beneath a pile of words celebrating victory. On Oct. 23, hours after the petition was delivered to Edwards, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, released a video governor calling his party’s maneuver “a major step toward reopening Louisiana.” 

Seabaugh said, “With the petition that we signed today, the governor is going to be legally required to sign an order ending the restrictions ending the public health emergency related to COVID-19, all mandates, all closures associated with it. That includes the mask mandate. It includes the church restrictions and includes the restrictions on high school football. It includes restaurant capacities, bar closures, everything.” Seabaugh then says, “More importantly, he is now legally prohibited from issuing any new public health emergencies from today through seven days after he lifts the order.” 

Such a short suspension of the governor’s order can’t even be considered a test to see if a longer lasting suspension of the order is warranted. The incubation period for COVID-19 virus can be as long as 14 days, with the average time between infection and onset of symptoms  5 to 6 days. A person who gets sick because the rules are suspended won’t necessarily be sick before a suspension ends. That means that the House Republicans would have no reliable data at the end of seven days to know what effect a seven-day suspension had. They’ll only be able to say they did something.

Given that people continue to die in Louisiana of COVID-19 and that case numbers and deaths are going up across the country and world, a petition demanding suspension of the governor’s public health order for any significant length of time would have been indescribably reckless.  A week-long suspension is a bit less reckless but a lot more feckless. 

Edwards filed suit Monday in an East Baton Rouge Parish Court, calling the petition an unconstitutional political stunt and not a serious, thought out public policy decision. Edwards has not signed an order ending the public health emergency as the petition demands that he do. Seabaugh said in his statement that House Republicans would take him to court to make him enforce it, but Attorney Jeff Landry said Saturday that Edwards doesn’t have to sign anything for the Republicans to effectively end the order.

If that’s true and the suspension of the rules went into effect Friday, Oct. 23, does that suspension end today? Is it already over? 

The governor’s main point in his lawsuit is that the law giving a majority of members in a single chamber of the Louisiana Legislature the authority to check the governor’s power is inconsistent with the separation of powers rules found elsewhere in the same document. But the lawsuit also says that those House members aren’t acting in good faith, that they aren’t actually trying to protect the people they claim to be representing.

“The Petition itself demonstrates that the Legislature has acted for political reasons and not because the emergency caused by COVID-19 has actually ended. The mere seven-day duration of the Petition proves that the motivation for the Petition had nothing to do with the interests of public health.”

Exactly.  It has everything to do with House Republicans’ anger that a Democrat won last year’s gubernatorial election and that he’s actually using the power that’s been vested in him. Seabaugh gives the game away when he says during his statement:  “The governor has been violating his legal authority since March.”

In March, Louisiana had the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, and the governor issued a stay-at-home order to slow down its spread. If he was out of order in March, then why didn’t House Republicans rise up to stop him then?  If he’s been out of order for 8 months, how is checking him for 7 days a sufficient response?

The law allowing for a petition ending a public health emergency first requires lawmakers to consult with the state’s public health authority.  Lawmakers made contact with officials with the Louisiana Department of Health in an attempt to satisfy that requirement, but does reaching out and talking qualify as consulting with?  The governor points out that a Sept. 28 email from Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, requesting a consultation with the health department, came long after House Republicans had begun circulating a petition to end the governor’s orders.

More significantly, the governor asks, if they aren’t open to anything the health department has told them, can the Republicans rightly claim to have consulted with the department? After all, we all know that nobody at the Louisiana Department of Health would be in favor of House Republicans suspending the governor’s health order — for any length of time.

Who knows what a judge will say about the alleged consultation, whether it needed to come before the petition or whether it had to be sincere, but the public should recognize the whole process as a political charade that imperils our health and insults our intelligence.  Republicans should just be honest that they want power and they’ll do anything to take it because the idea that they consulted the public health authority would be like a person claiming to have consulted the Ten Commandments before coveting his neighbor’s ass.