Virginia got a good dose of government by decree last week.
That it went down rather badly is all the more instructive because the decrees - sweeping fuel allocation orders by Gov. Mills E. Godwin that limited retailers and professionals to 40 hours of business a week - were inspired by good motives.
By week's end, it seemed clear that Godwin's high purpose of conserving fuel supplies should have been subjected to a more rigorous fact-finding process before business activity was curtailed drastically.
The orders were a hammer blow to retail sales, especially in Northern Virginia where residents could continue to spend at will in Washington and its Maryland suburbs. The orders threatened, until generally withdrawn after one week, to escalate already rising unemployment and there is no evidence that they saveda significant amount of fuel.
Godwin acted under the Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Law of 1973. It is just about as broad a grant of power by a legislature to a governor as any cheif executive could ask for.
As applied last week, it permits the governor to do whatever he deems necessary for the public good whenever he concludes there is merely a "reduced supply" of some commodity or service that bears a "substantial relationship to the health, safety, welfare and economic well being for the citizens of the commonwealth."
The law's language effectively licenses the governor to take over the powers of the Assembly on his own motion and leaves the legislators without so much as a thread to leash him. Even the power of the purse string is severed by language in the statute that allows the governor to spend any "sum sufficient" to pay the costs of meeting any emergency he perceives.
The law delivers to a public official who already has immense power to run a government the even larger power to run peoples' lives.
To a greater degree perhaps than in any other state, constitution and custom in Virginia have created a strong executive and a weak legislature. Nevertheless, in ordinary times, the governor merely runs the government and it is the General Assembly that runs people.
The Assembly annually tinkers with laws that set the rules for marriage, divorce, the conduct of professions and occupations, the authority of schoolteachers over children in and out of school, the hours for drinking beer, whiskey and wine and the age of those who can do it. It determines what regulations shall apply not only to banks, insurance companies, railroads and truck lines, but also to the family pet.
Any casual observer of the Virginia Assembly can tell you that it seldom acts in haste. Proposals for major change lie around for years in the hands of one house or the other and of their joint study commissions that meet between the breif annual sessions.
It is clear that the Virginia Assembly loves no maxim more dearly than the one laid down by Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, both former Assembly members, "Delay is preferable to error."
The legislative torpor in Richmond, however, is not, as some would have it, the result of slow wits and timid spirits at work on the statute books. There are a lot of people going about in the guise of special interests who know what a legislative body can do to them. Every legislative proposal inches forward under the weight of self-serving suggestions from competing interests.
Not so the executive orders issued last week under the Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Law of 1973. There is much evidence that they were decreed in haste when two of Mills Godwin's most pronounced characteristics, decisiveness and prudence, usually at war within him, somehow joined forces and ran amok.
Alarmed at evidence of a national fuel crisis and influenced by a handful of harrassed fuel oil distributors, Godwin and a few senior advisers decided to limit use of all fuels by closing stores.
Never mind that no precise accounting of fuel oil supplies was available. Never mind that state and federal regulators of the natural gas industry already had taken the steps they thought necessary to protect Virginia supplies. Never mind that electric power officials agreed to electricity rationing "mainly on philosophical grounds" rather than any evidence of how much power could be generated during the emergency period.
Godwin conferred briefly with Sumpter Priddy, lobbyist for the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, before issuing his hour-limit order. Priddy siad he liked the idea of imposing restrictions uniformly. By week's end, however, many retailers were pointing out that fuel supply conditions varied widely by region and type of fuel used. They were asking why lay off workers and reduce sales of one store when it had no calculable impact on fuel supplies of others.
The executive chambers discussions that produced the emergency orders apparently did not raise a lot of sensible questions. A week later, the governor revised his order to let businesses stay open as long as they wished at reduced temperatures. Asked why this approach wasn't taken in the first place, a spokesman for the governor said, "It just didn't come up."
The virtue of the legislative process is that almost everything comes up at least once before an important law is passed or greatly changed.
It seems like a good time for the Assembly to find way to instil this virtue in the Emergency Services and Disaster Act. Fuel emergencies may become a permanent feature of life. It could not hamper the governor's ability to act in a timely way and might even help him if the Assembly required continuing publication of fuel inventories, estimates of savings produced by cutting service to specific customer groups and a set of guidelines that would give advance warning of service curtailments.
Most important, perhaps, is the need for the Assembly to recognize that a governor rationing fuel by decree is a governor running people's lives. An amendment to the Emergency Law providing for speedy legislative committee review or review by the full Assembly in special session would protect this legislative prerogative.