What History Has Taught Us: When A Crisis Passes, Emergency Measures Often Stay Intact

Without strict oversight, emergency powers put our democratic institutions at risk.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: (L-R) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) ap... WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: (L-R) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) applaud U.S. President Donald Trump during a bill signing ceremony for H.R. 748, the CARES Act in the Oval Office of the White House on March 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Earlier on Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the $2 trillion stimulus bill that lawmakers hope will battle the the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
April 10, 2020 6:16 p.m.
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In times of crisis, it’s natural for people to look for decisive action from their leaders. Another natural response to a crisis is to do whatever it takes to solve it and prevent something similar from occurring in the future. When thousands of people are dying and hospitals are taxed to their limits, it’s natural for leaders and citizens to become extraordinarily risk averse and look for the strongest possible measures to save lives—as they should. Yet we must be cautious about the response to COVID-19, as an unmitigated rush to control the virus may also put the core of our democracy at risk.

In response to COVID-19, the United States has shut down businesses, embarked on a multi-trillion-dollar bailout (primarily to big business), ordered large swaths of its citizens to remain behind closed doors and has begun to unravel its electoral calendar. Under normal circumstances, any one of these actions would be pilloried as a turn toward authoritarianism, but these are not ordinary times. The thinking is that all of these actions are necessary to stop the spread of the virus, and indeed in many cases they are. I want to be extraordinarily clear about this: It is absolutely imperative that appropriate measures such as physical distancing be taken to reduce the spread of disease and save lives. But now is also the time to think about how we return society and our nation to normalcy once the pandemic has passed.

As history demonstrates, extraordinary powers are easy to institute and incredibly difficult to roll back. Many democracies failed when they allowed leaders to institute emergency measures without a clear stipulation of the conditions under which those measures expire. This was how Caesar took power in Rome, and modern dictators ranging from Hitler to Putin  used national emergencies to lend legitimacy to power grabs as well. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon as part of an attempt to retain dictatorial power granted to him by the Roman Senate so he could quell a rebellion in Gaul. The emergency powers instituted by Hindenburg to fight Communist sedition after the 1933 Reichstag fire ultimately allowed Adolf Hitler to take total control in Germany. Vladimir Putin leveraged the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings to gain power in Russia.

My worry is that while we are appropriately concerned with fighting the spread of COVID-19 here in the United States, we are not paying enough attention to how the techniques used to fight it are accruing vast powers to the government without a clear goal line for when those powers expire. The thinking is that everything will return to the way it was once the emergency has passed. But who makes that decision, and do we trust them?

This has happened before. The early years of the Cold War brought us McCarthyism’s deranged attacks on free speech, and the response to 9/11 produced an NSA domestic surveillance program, invasive TSA security checks at airports, CIA black sites and torture programs and Guantanamo Bay. These are just a few examples of American emergencies and concomitant government power grabs.

The risk of further erosion of American and democratic values is acute right now. The necessary public health response to COVID-19 — including prohibitions on public gatherings and the closure of businesses — may presage a headlong rush to concentrate power and undermine core democratic systems. Within days of the passage of the coronavirus bailout by Congress, President Trump has already fired the head of the oversight committee that was created to prevent graft. Simultaneously, the Trump Organization is seeking to use coronavirus to wriggle out of paying back loans to Deutsche Bank. Texas is trying to use the virus to restrict abortion access. In Wisconsin, following a conservative ruling in the Supreme Court, voters reported never receiving absentee ballots and were faced with a potentially deadly choice between either voting in person and risking infection, or abstaining from voting in the primary. And the Democratic Party has struggled with rescheduling primaries and a nominating convention. A failure to conduct fair elections and a weakening of the Democratic primaries can easily be seen as a tactic to ultimately suppress Democratic turnout in November. As such, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which an attempt is made to delay the presidential election.

The power grab is just as evident at the state level. In New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has deservedly received praise for his handling of the nation’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, legislation was recently passed granting him extraordinary executive powers that can be invoked for “impending” disasters, rather than those that have already occurred, and the change may open the door for a range of actions including martial law, travel restrictions and mass quarantines, according to Gothamist. This may seem like a hill of beans, yet the change was enough to put the New York Civil Liberties Union on alert. The group issued a statement arguing, “we should not repeat the mistakes of 20 years ago. While the legislature should move expeditiously to fund and support the necessary public health response, nothing requires them to expand executive power without adequate consideration for the need or the potential consequences.”

On one level, these are concerns about the future. It seems unlikely that Governor Cuomo would choose to continue to restrict public gatherings or business any longer than he has to, but it’s impossible to predict the behavior of future leaders. Yet turn your eyes to Washington, and these concerns are very real and very present. Donald Trump has shown repeatedly that he is willing to push the levers of democracy to the breaking point. Unless there are clear, recognizable and enforceable limits to determine the end of the coronavirus emergency, a future in which the COVID-19 restrictions are used to subvert or undermine elections and funnel taxpayer money to political cronies is not difficult to imagine.

With that in mind, it is incumbent that lawmakers move quickly to solidify a clear set of rules for rolling back coronavirus restrictions. The power to define the level of threat posed by the virus should be explicitly assigned by Congress to a special, non-partisan oversight committee, so as to mitigate potential politicization of the disease and create a fact-based, scientific approach to combating it. This committee could — for instance — be composed of the lead scientists and administrators of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with outside input from leading scientists and public health experts as needed. Emergency powers associated with pandemic response would only be accessible if this committee deemed the threat to be real. Without a systematized, scientific, non-partisan method of defining the risk posed by COVID-19, the nation will likely struggle to roll back emergency powers and safely return to normalcy.

Benjamin Reeves is a freelance financial journalist and screenwriter based in New York. He writes the daily newsletter “Highly Transmissible.” Reeves previously was the senior special projects editor at “Worth” magazine, worked in communications at Columbia Business School and was a foreign correspondent in Latin America.

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