- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Americans have been getting a serious civics lesson over the past month as they turn to Washington for answers to the coronavirus crisis — only to find out their state governors have far more control over what goes on in their daily lives.

State and local authorities are the ones making decisions about shutting down businesses and allocating medical equipment to hospitals.

It’s the system the country’s founders designed, though it seems anachronistic to many while a deadly disease pushes past all national and state boundaries.

“In our federal system, the federal government exists to support the actions of state and local governments,” said Thomas A. Birkland, an associate dean at North Carolina State University. “The federal government doesn’t run the fire department. The local governments run the fire department.”

In most cases, that also means the chief executive — a governor or, in some cases, a mayor — is wielding the power.

Congress has been reduced to the role of banker.

Capitol Hill fought over the size and scope of a $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Once lawmakers approved it, they retreated to their homes and left the Washington stage to President Trump.

The president is cloaking himself in the trappings of power with daily trips to the lectern in the White House briefing room, making pronouncements and fielding questions.

But one former White House official pointed out that most of what the president says about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is conjecture or suggestions for behavior. He can’t compel governors or even citizens to act.

One exception where the president does have power is the military — thus the deployment of Navy hospital ships to COVID-19 hot spots. He also is doling out the largesse that Congress has appropriated and stiffening security to prevent incoming flights and to return illegal border crossers quickly.

Mr. Trump has said he is pondering broader travel restrictions inside the U.S., but Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, said there is debate about whether he has the power to order such a move.

“If he did try to do that, it would be complicated,” Mr. Somin said.

Not all governors are happy with the situation that has fallen on their shoulders.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told “Fox News Sunday” that a single national strategy could end the epidemic faster.

The federal system also leaves governors bidding with one another for scarce medical equipment from the private sector.

At the White House, reporters have been indignant that Mr. Trump hasn’t stepped in to force a national policy.

“We have a thing called the Constitution,” the president reminded them Saturday as he defended governors who haven’t issued shutdown orders. “I want the governors to be running things.”

Governors are indeed running things, and they have produced wildly different policies.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, told state troopers to stop out-of-state vehicles and order occupants to self-quarantine if they plan to remain in the state.

More than a dozen other states have requested quarantine periods for out-of-state visitors, with varying degrees of compulsion.

Even within states, authorities are experimenting.

Dare County in North Carolina, home to some of the most popular Outer Banks resorts, has declared a full ban on any outsiders entering. That includes vacation home owners who don’t reside in the county permanently, officials said.

Despite that, Dare reported its fifth COVID-19 case Saturday in a population of about 37,000.

On the other side of the ledger, nine states don’t have stay-at-home orders for residents.

Mr. Birkland at North Carolina State University said that’s federalism at work.

“Every state is going to have a different set of needs and a different take on what their situation is,” he said. “And then every governor is probably going to have a different calculus about what the risks and benefits of certain actions are going to be.”

Even with the freedom to choose different paths, governors are under intense pressure to adopt the same rules as everyone else. Most of them are complying, figuring there is wisdom — and perhaps political safety — in numbers.

What remains to be seen is whether the crisis prompts a rethink of the federal structure or other aspects of power.

“I’m for more decentralization rather than less, but I honestly don’t know what the optimal level of centralization is on this issue,” Mr. Somin told The Washington Times.

He said allowing states to set their own policies means one mistake won’t affect the whole nation. That’s true for governors but also true for Mr. Trump, he said. The worse the president performs, the less people should want power to be concentrated in the White House.

But a pandemic also tests the usual strictures of federalism because one state’s lax controls can end up leading to spread of infections in neighboring states. Mr. Somin said that’s known as an “externality,” which the divided federal system may not be prepared to accommodate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, is asserting lawmakers’ rights of oversight. She has announced a special investigative committee to watch how the administration handles the COVID-19 outbreak and compared it to the Truman Committee, which investigated spending on the war effort while World War II was still raging.

“The panel will root out waste, fraud and abuse,” she said. “It will protect against price gouging and profiteering. It will press to ensure that the federal response is based on the best possible science and guided by the nation’s best health experts.”

Mr. Trump compared the investigative effort to Democrats’ recently failed attempt to oust him through impeachment.

“I want to remind everyone here in our nation’s capital, especially in Congress, that this is not the time for politics, endless partisan investigations,” he said. “It’s not any time for witch hunts. It’s time to get this enemy defeated.”

Mr. Birkland, though, said oversight is exactly the role Congress can fill, including an after-action report on coordination between the federal government and the states to see where they cooperated, where they clashed and what might be changed to deal with future crises.

Mr. Somin said governments tend to impose emergency measures during a crisis and then keep those powers.

“We should be more aware than some people seem to be of the dangers that can rise from that if the emergency powers are not rolled back after the emergency is over,” he said.

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