By Lowman S. Henry
Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal
The new normal. Of all the COVID-19 pandemic phrases to enter the popular lexicon the past year and a half, this is the one I hated most. That is because of the people who were using the term; folks like Governor Tom Wolf who intended the new normal to be one of extended if not permanent government regulation and control over of our lives.
But events of recent weeks have given rise to hope that the new normal might be one of enhanced freedom and opportunity. Among the lessons learned during the pandemic are that our rights and freedoms are fragile and must be jealously guarded; and that many laws and regulations are barriers to innovation and progress.
Here in Penn’s Woods, one of the most important aspects of the new normal is that never again can a despotic governor wield unchecked power through the endless exercise of emergency declarations. In a historic act, We the People ensured that by amending the state constitution to give our elected lawmakers the clear ability to end such power grabs.
The draconian actions of Governor Tom Wolf laid waste to tens of thousands of small businesses and exiled hundreds of thousands to the unemployment lines and a bureaucracy which itself was marked by chronic ineptitude. We have three branches of government for a reason, and the governor’s predisposition to act without consultation or collaboration made a bad situation infinitely worse.
Thus, for the first time, many people realized the importance and impact a governor can have on our everyday lives. We also came to fully understand how the third branch of government – the judiciary – can be co-conspirators in stealing our freedoms through activist rulings and essentially re-writing laws. With elections for statewide judicial offices this year and an open seat election for governor next year we have before us the opportunity to further restore constitutional balance to state government.
During the COIVD-19 pandemic many regulations, particularly those involving the delivery of health care, were relaxed or suspended. In exercising their newly approved constitutional authority to end Governor Wolf’s emergency powers, lawmakers were careful to leave in place the relaxation or suspension of many regulations that expedited the delivery of health care services. Look for new legislation in the coming months to make many of those changes permanent.
At the national level, we learned how important it is to remove regulatory barriers and approval processes slowed by a moribund federal bureaucracy. The Trump Administration implemented Operation Warp Speed that got the government out of the way and sped up approvals to allow the private sector to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time. As a result, countless lives have been saved and the pandemic – at least in the USA – has been largely brought under control.
What this has proven is that many of these regulations and approval processes are either not needed or unnecessarily complex and slow. Going forward, reforms need to be implemented to remove these barriers to the development of other pharmaceutical products so we can more quickly make advances in the prevention and treatment of more diseases.
We also learned what does and what does not work. Pennsylvania and other states with dictatorial governors suffered a prolonged and more severe pandemic both medically and economically than did states which took a more hands-off approach. Florida and its Governor Ron DeSantis have emerged as the gold standard of how to handle a pandemic: reasonable caution without excessive government interference.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred many citizens who otherwise paid scant attention to state government into action. Social media was alive with activists pushing back against Governor Wolf’s draconian policies and many went into the streets attending rallies and protests. Having been awakened, the new normal should include a continuation of this citizen engagement.
But the most important aspect of the new normal is a new appreciation for the old normal. COVID-19 impacted the lives of all of us in one way or another. It closed schools, churches, and community events. It isolated many from family and friends. Those things we took for granted were suddenly gone. If nothing else, as all of those things return to the “old normal,” our “new normal” will be to appreciate that “normal” is actually something very special.