Op-ed: Memo to America’s Leaders: Your credibility dies in darkness

Originally published in The Hill.

As our health care system and economy teeter under the strain from COVID-19, elected officials are making some of the most important decisions of our lifetimes. Especially at the state level, many are emerging as competent leaders. Others, though, are undermining their authority and the public trust by hiding behind a wall of secrecy.

Americans have never put up with “don’t ask questions, just trust me” for long — especially in a crisis.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Wolf initially was an open book in dealing with the coronavirus threat, holding daily news conferences and providing updates. But then he dropped a hammer on the state’s workers and businesses with no warning.

On March 19, Wolf issued a statewide ban on business operations not deemed “life-sustaining.” The drastic measure was unprecedented, and so was its announcement. The shutdown order was announced on a Thursday afternoon and went into effect just three hours later.

The business community wasn’t consulted. Lawmakers were blindsided. The criteria for what qualified as “life-sustaining” was ill-defined, and bans on certain industries appeared to be arbitrary. The details eventually released were a hodgepodge, seemingly assembled with little forethought, that evolved constantly over the next weeks.

Truckers could work, but interstate rest stops and Turnpike restaurants and restrooms were closed. State-run liquor stores were open, but payroll companies — which ensure life-sustaining workers can be paid — were shuttered. Then rest stops and payroll companies were reopened and liquor stores were closed. Unprecedented times may call for unprecedented measures, but the haphazard rollout of Wolf’s business shutdown was entirely avoidable.

Then it got worse.

Wolf imposed a waiver process for “non-life-sustaining” businesses to get clearance to reopen — a red-tape measure that no other state has replicated.

Other states under businesses shutdowns, such as in Maryland, allow for exemptions for businesses in the supply chain, or a good-faith determination, using legal counsel, in cases where a business may provide “essential” services but isn’t on the approved list. Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gavin Newsom of California have provided greater clarity and transparency while implementing their own extraordinary measures.

But in Pennsylvania, businesses must ask permission to reopen and wait in limbo for approval. By April 3, over 42,000 waiver applications had been filed and thousands had received no answer. The Wolf administration then announced a sudden halt to the waiver process, again taking business owners by surprise.

And there are stories of waivers being denied to some businesses while being granted to others. Consider also that the governor’s former business, cabinet-maker Wolf Home Products, received
a waiver. After a public outcry, the waiver was rescinded, but the damage was done. Will Pennsylvanians trust Wolf to have their best interests at heart going forward? Or will they perceive this as another case of politicized decision-making by corrupt elites?

It’s hard to fault their suspicions. 

Because the waiver process takes place behind closed doors, no one really knows who makes the decisions and what criteria is used. And the Wolf administration is refusing open records requests for details. According to investigative journalism nonprofit Spotlight PA, “The process has sowed widespread frustration, anger and confusion.” 

That’s why Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to bring clarity to Wolf’s shadowy shutdown. This week, the General Assembly passed a bill that replaces the Wolf administration’s “essential” list and waiver process with simple and transparent guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security, allowing more elements of the economy to reopen as long as businesses adhere to strict social distancing requirements.

Though Wolf says he plans to veto this bill, he should take its lessons to heart.

Dramatic emergency orders, though understandable in a crisis, are really just new laws that all must follow or face the consequences. Except nobody votes on them and few, if any, understand them.

Wolf should take this legislative pushback as an opportunity for a course correction. If he continues to govern in darkness, he'll undermine his authority and risk that his next directives will be met with suspicion rather than acceptance.