States, jealous of their power and prerogatives when it suits, have been furious over what some governors call federal inaction on COVID-19, deliberate or not. But equally, each state has a department of public health, a director of that department and staff. Each state is presumed to have a plan for emergencies: floods, forest fires, airliner crashes (the last fatal crash in the U.S. occurred in 2009, but it used to be on the “prepare for” list) or pandemics. Closing schools and parks is not handled in Washington. Calling out the state National Guard is, as its name suggests, a state prerogative.
Emergency plans are expensive, and states are often strapped for cash; so is Washington. And, now that the feds and the states are beginning to plan for “reopening,” each will look for a way to take credit and lay blame. President Donald Trump has pre-empted some of this with his announcement that the White House will work with all 50 governors to create reopening plans. Governor Andrew Cuomo conceded that New York cannot manage without Washington when he announced that he won’t fight with the President. If he won’t, no one outside the media will.
This is, then, an opportune moment to consider federalism as a key American operating principle both in general and as it relates to the next big fight — the Electoral College. (Think it’s too early? It isn’t.) Federalism is how states and municipalities exercise their authority separate from the federal government. For decades, liberals have sought more federal power over states (abortion, marriage, health insurance, and bathrooms), while conservatives have argued for less (school choice, Medicaid, abortion).
In 2017, however, the tables turned. President Trump withdrew the United States from the UN-sponsored Paris Climate Accord. The pact, which resembled an international treaty, was not ratified — or even discussed — by the U.S. Senate, although the Obama administration put $1 billion of a $3 billion pledge into the pot. Apparently not upset by a president spending money not appropriated by Congress, both domestic and international redistributionists denounced President Trump for withdrawing and he was pilloried in the press.
Enter federalism. A dozen American states and more than 200 cities committed themselves (or their constituents) to maintaining the principles and goals of the Paris pact. More than 1,000 companies and institutions, including more than a dozen Fortune 500 businesses, signed a statement joining them in adhering to international standards in a way that did not require the federal government and did not to run afoul of federal law (unlike, for example, sanctuary cities). There were only two questions: Who will do the heavy lifting for what we all consider benefits? What constitutes the best use of American money in pursuit of those aims?
Both the states and the President agreed that the United Nations bureaucracy was not the answer to either question. Both were believers in the market for innovation in emerging and adaptive technologies. Neither was particularly interested in sending money abroad. Beyond that, certain states made certain investments and worked with various companies. Other states did other things. The federal government didn’t interfere.
Which brings us to 2020, COVID-19 and the Electoral College.
The conversation isn’t just between the states and Washington, it is among the 50 states.
NY City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot told people in February that casual contact would not transmit the virus and to participate in the Lunar New Year parade. The mayor of New Orleans said she saw no reason to cancel Mardi Gras. On the other hand, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed a major festival before the first case was reported there. Different strokes. In the reopening phase, the governors in a swath of states from the Dakotas to Texas view their needs as different from the group of governors in the hard-hit northeast who have banded together with their own plan. The governor of Nevada doesn’t want to be ruled by the needs of the governor of New York.
And so, the Electoral College — the needs and votes of the people of New York and California can’t swamp the votes of the people of Delaware and Oklahoma. Montana has a say and so does Maine. Every state — as a state — is equal, and it is 50 states that make up the republic we cherish.
The chief constitutional responsibilities of the federal government are national security, international diplomacy, and international trade. It can – and should – be argued that the feds have been short-sighted in every one of those areas. You can choose anything from the 1972 opening to China to the spending of the “peace dividend,” or the Iran deal. Much of what Washington did during the Great Depression didn’t help – and Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII has been regretted by Washington until now.
Each was problematic, but all had their roots in legitimate federal responsibilities. Elections, and electors, are a function of states.
Much will come from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most useful would be a better understanding of the role of Washington and of the states in managing the welfare of the American people in a crisis — whether that crisis is state-wide or national — and governors stepping up to follow through.