Opinion

Greg Abbott turns Republican rage into law

On the Texas governor's unconstitutional embrace of the base

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wants everyone to believe he is a champion of personal freedom and public health. To advance the first he has banned mask requirements by local governments and proof of vaccination mandates by local governments and many private businesses. To advance the second he has ordered state troopers to stop private vehicles suspected of transporting duly admitted migrants "who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities." He issued executive orders to accomplish both ends.

But if his actions prove anything, it is his rather lopsided populism that doesn't respect any limits on his powers.

Abbott initially banned local mask mandates in May, threatening to impose a $1,000 fine on counties, cities, and public schools that violated his order. And now just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidance advising indoor masking even for vaccinated people in the wake of the new Delta variant, Abbott is going the other way. Not only has he doubled down on his mask mandate ban but he has also banned "vaccine passports" in the state. And he is doing so even as Texas has experienced a 200 percent spike in COVID cases over two weeks, more than 70 points above the national average.  

One can certainly question the upside of the CDC's new mask guidance given that vaccines are quite effective against the new Delta variant. One can also argue that government agencies shouldn't require proof of vaccination as a condition of providing services to constituents. On the other hand, duly elected local officials experiencing pandemic breakouts should have the leeway to protect public health as they see fit.

Where exactly to draw that balance is debatable. But what's not is whether the government has any business dictating the terms of services for private enterprises that are not violating anyone's constitutionally protected rights. Yet Abbott's edict would not only forbid any business receiving state grants or contracts to require proof of immunization from customers as a condition of service but also potentially make business licenses conditional on foregoing such proof. This will basically kill the cruise industry given that its whole reopening model depends on guaranteeing a COVID-free environment, which is why the industry has been pushing back hard against both Abbott's directive and a similar one issued by Florida's Republican governor. This directive might also force businesses such as hair salons to forego inquiring about the immunization status of customers or risk losing their operating permits.

Abbott claims that he is taking this action so that individual Texans – rather than local governments or businesses – can "decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks" and "engage in leisure activities." But protecting individual rights doesn't mean stripping these entities of their legitimate powers and rights.

Yet even as Abbott has few compunctions about overriding the public health concerns of local authorities, he is not averse to invoking those same concerns to justify defying the federal government when it comes to asylum seekers.

There is little evidence that migrants are responsible for spreading COVID-19 in Texas, as Abbot claims. One can make a far more plausible case that the state's relatively low vaccination rate – about 6 points below the national average for the fully vaccinated -- is the real culprit here. But if COVID-19 were Abbott's real concern he would not have rebuffed the Biden administration's offer to test the migrants before release.

He insists that the administration should expel every migrant who crosses the border without authorization by invoking Title 42, a Trump-era emergency executive order that used COVID-19 as an excuse to give authorities carte blanche to turn away migrants without the hearing that they are entitled to in normal times.

President Joe Biden should have scrapped this abominable directive as soon as he assumed office. Instead, he just renewed it and, to his eternal shame, has been using it aggressively to turn away asylum seekers. However, he is allowing some who can show they have a "credible fear" of returning to their country to remain in America pending a final hearing.

Border authorities typically contract with private transportation services to give these migrants a ride to bus or train stations so that they can meet up with their friends or families. But in a naked attempt to intimidate these services, Abbott has directed state troopers to stop any vehicle they suspect has migrants on board and even impound it. How precisely he squares his alleged commitment to individual freedom with such a raw assertion of the police state is anyone's guess.

Be that as it may, this directive is a clear affront to the federal government's constitutionally granted supremacy on immigration enforcement. So it's hardly surprising that a federal judge appointed by Republican President George W. Bush has blocked it.

But why is Abbott pushing a measure that has very little chance of prevailing in court? For the same reason that he issued the other directive: Republican voters are upset by immigrants just as they are upset about mask mandates and vaccination passports.

In short, there is no lofty principle – personal freedom, free enterprise, local control, or public health concerns – guiding Abbott. It's all about the base.

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