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  • Ryan Metz

Federalism in the Age of the Coronavirus

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

As the sun rose over Washington and the clock struck 8 a.m. on April 16th, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows gathered a small group of aides to help the administration plan a response to the coronavirus pandemic. The group, now seated around Meadow's conference table, had been meeting throughout the month and continued to discuss solutions to the economic, health, and political crises in front of them. Although there were suggestions for maximizing production of ventilators or finding more personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), the favored strategy was one that shifted responsibility for managing the pandemic from the federal government to the states. Referred to as the "state authority handoff," the Trump administration decided to let states craft their own response to the coronavirus. In doing so, governors and local mayors were left the autonomy to decide on pressing issues such as mask mandates, stay-at-home orders, and securing P.P.E. "The state authority handoff" strategy and the entirety of the U.S. coronavirus response represent how the relationship between the federal government and the states continues to shape policy making.

Although coronavirus has recently refocused our attention on the concept of federalism, it has always been a staple of U.S. politics. Federalism, formally defined as the division of power between the state and federal government, remained at the forefront of debate when dealing with various social, political, economic issues throughout American history. For example, many southern legislators following the Civil War claimed states had the right to use their police power as they saw fit to impose segregation on African Americans. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren pushed back against the concept of states’ rights when it involved state laws that restricted personal freedoms such as religion or racial equality. The different interpretations of the federal and state power balance presented by the Reconstruction era politicians and the Warren Court reflect how conversations over federalism continued to arise in U.S political disputes.

In recent years, we still confront these same questions over states’ rights versus central leadership. For instance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) fought against the legislative goals of former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama by promoting a platform that distrusts central authority. During this pandemic, some may view Trump's deferral of power to the states as an attempt to keep in line with the pro-states rights message of the modern Republican Party.

The range of interpretations surrounding the concept of federalism shows that it does not inherently mean leaving the states to their own devices, nor does it imply a dominant central power. Instead, the system of federalism seems to emphasize a balance between state and federal interests, promoting a role for each layer of government. Nevertheless, attempting to work within the system of federalism during a public health crisis such as the coronavirus has been an extraordinary challenge.

The balance between federal and state responsibilities can only work if all layers of the federal infrastructure are working in unison. The “state authority handoff” strategy of the Trump administration, however, replaced the prospect of a unified national response. As a result, the burden has fallen on states to plan their own responses without a clear set of national guidelines to follow. Governors were left to their own devices, having to coordinate everything from the lack of I.C.U. Beds to the recovery of small businesses themselves.

Compared to the federal government, states are resource-poor and are barred by the Constitution from minting their own money to fund these projects. In April, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island formulated their own task force to help each state manage its medical and economic struggles in the face of minimal federal support. “When you go to war, you don’t say every state has to buy its own tanks, every state has to buy its own guns,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated on CNN as he called on the President to issue a set of national guidelines. Stronger national leadership might have provided a leg of support to states, helping governors acquire the necessary medical and economic resources to weather the virus's impact.

One other impact of Trump's deferral to state authority was the mixed approach it created among states. Since the beginning of the U.S. encounter with coronavirus states have varied their responses. Some have taken the government's pro-state interpretation of federalism in stride, providing a more robust alternative to the President's negligent attitude. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo helped create the structure for interstate and private-public cooperation. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker put in place mass testing and tracing systems that provided a blueprint for other states to replicate. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom formed a volunteer corps of health residents to help the homeless and needy populations. These states actually use the lack of federal instruction to formulate and enforce much stricter policies than the White House has offered to combat the virus.

The federalism of 2020, however, is a double edge sword. This new style of federalism, which places a much greater responsibility on the state in the federal-state relationship, also allows many state leaders to opt for a heedless response. Without a clear and well-enforced national strategy, governors avoid being held accountable by C.D.C. guidelines even as they reopen under dire circumstances. For example, as Florida reaches its fifth consecutive day of counting more than 10,000 cases per day, Governor Ron DeSantis remains able to resist calls for a mask mandate. He also announced earlier this July that all public schools in the state will be required to return to in-person classes by August.

Similarly, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott began to reopen the state just a month after it first shut down, he refused to allow municipalities to issue mask requirements in their cities or follow their own timetables for reopening. Although Abbott eventually reversed his position on masks with an executive order requiring high-risk countries to wear face coverings in public, Texas’s lenient attitude towards re-opening bars and restaurants in the early days of the pandemic has created a surge in case counts. As of Monday, July 20th Texas is surpassing 4,000 cases a day.

The way these governors have mismanaged the coronavirus outbreak seems to, at least in part, stem from a lack of clear national guidelines that would require states to adopt more aggressive measures. Instead, the federal government’s decision to hand responsibility off to the states left the policies of state governors unchecked and unabridged. The absence of a national strategy makes it incredibly difficult for state leaders to coordinate their actions with governors across the country. We now face a country that is completely separated from itself, a country that is both simmering embers and raging wildfires.

The system of federalism is a system that can only be as strong as its weakest link. Even as many states decide to take a disciplined approach to the pandemic, this work is still undermined by states who choose to ignore C.D.C. guidelines that mandate a downward trajectory of cases for at least 14 days before reopening. A state like New York could finally get the virus under control only to have it reappear as a result of citizens traveling from places like Florida, California, or Arizona. States do not have borders, and, in a public health crisis, the decisions these governors make do not just impact their constituents but also affect the rest of the country's population.

Federalism can be a powerful structure; however, there must be a balance of responsibility between state and federal action in order to create effective solutions. This means there should be a healthy amount of federal activism to reconcile states' interests with national goals. If we are to continue working within our federalist system in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to truly understand its meaning and know how to use it properly. As the sun begins to rise over Washington and the clock strikes 8 a.m. on another late July morning, America seems more confused than ever on how to reconcile its founding principles.

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