Gov. Chafee’s Use of Executive Orders Viewed as Anti-Democratic

After a dispute over abortion funding derailed legislation in the General Assembly that would establish a health benefit exchange system, Gov. Lincoln Chafee responded with an executive order that some critics view as anti-democratic.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Act (PPACA), commonly known as ObamaCare, states are required to set up an exchange system by January 2014. As the Ocean State Current has previously reported, several Republican governors from across the country have refused to implement the exchange system.

The political atmosphere is much different in Rhode Island, where a majority of lawmakers favor the health care law and the exchange system. However, they are not keen on the idea of Gov. Chafee’s bypassing the legislative process, Rep. Doreen Costa, a Republican in District 31, said. Costa collected over 40 signatures from mostly Democratic representatives last fall who favored a floor vote on the exchange. Unfortunately, the effort was blocked by the Democratic leadership.

“We had support in both parties for a straight up and down vote and that’s what we should do whenever there is a major policy change,” said Costa who represents Exeter and North Kingstown. “By bypassing the state legislature with an executive order on an important policy matter, the governor has set a bad precedent, and it’s not the first time he has done this.”

Gov. Chafee’s executive order creating the health benefit exchange was issued in September 2011. Although she would have preferred to see a bill pass through the General Assembly,  Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts has told members of the press that Rhode Island could have lost out on federal funding if it delayed action. Moreover, she maintains that Gov. Chafee’s actions are on firm legal footing and very much in step with what other states have done.

In April 2011, the state Senate voted in favor of creating an exchange system but also added in an amendment that said health care plans on the receiving end of federal subsidies could not offer abortions. The bill never came up for a vote in the House because abortion rights groups saw that they did not have votes and killed it, claims Barth Bracy, the executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life.

Chris Caramela, the 2012 election coordinator for the Rhode Island Tea Party, is not at all confident that a majority of elected officials in the General Assembly would exercise sound judgment. Nevertheless, he views Chafee’s executive order as an affront to the democratic process that is very much at odds with long-standing American principles.

“Even when the Rhode Island legislature stands to be counted, it rarely advances sound policies, and it typically fails to safeguard taxpayer interests,” Caramela said. “Still, our lawmakers should go on record so they can be accountable. There is a real issue here about the separation of powers and the health of our democracy. The executive should not force through policy changes without input from the legislature, even if it means they ultimately make the wrong decision.”

Chafee’s perfidy with regard to executive orders is not limited to health care, Costa notes. He also signed executive orders recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state and another one that reversed an “E-Verify” policy that enabled law enforcement officials to check the immigration backgrounds of workers.

“Whatever your views are on these subjects, the governor should not be permitted to make an end-run around the General Assembly,” Costa said.

While she has misgivings about how Gov. Chafee used the executive order to create the exchange system, Sen. Beth Moura (R – Cumberlan, Lincoln), sees the maneuver as being symptomatic of a larger problem.

“What people don’t quite understand is that the governor has very little power in this state,” Moura said. “You have a small group people in the [Democratic] leadership that call all the shots in the state legislature. The executive order is one way a governor can change policy without settling for a compromise. I don’t agree with it, but I think we see executive orders being used because the Democrats have this veto proof majority.”

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