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Federalism in a crisis: Curse or cure?

Federalism in a crisis: Curse or cure?
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Due to a federalist system that disperses government powers widely, the U.S. response to the largest public health crisis in its history is a hodgepodge of national, state and local actions often in conflict with each other. The lack of policy coordination in the country is severely complicating the task of confronting the growing pandemic.

With no effective nationally directed strategy, it falls upon state and local officials to lead responsibly. And that is what is happening, although tragically only in some parts of the country, and often much too late. In some communities the reaction among policymakers is to act as though nothing has happened.

During normal times, federalism in the U.S. serves well the preferences of states and localities to solve many of their own problems and allows them not always to be subject to the authority of the national government. There are certainly disparities among the states in their abilities to solve complex policy problems, and some states have sordid histories of discriminatory policies and worse. Federalism is far from a perfect governing construct.

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But it is during crises and emergencies when federalism's shortcomings are most on display. During natural catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast states in 2005 and the 2017 storms in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, slow and ineffective federal responses coupled with disputes among federal, state and local authorities severely hampered crisis mitigation. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE responded to pleas from state governors for critical medical supplies by suggesting that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk” and that they must get supplies on their own. Result: States are in a bidding war with each other for critical supplies such as ventilators, driving up prices. Items are being distributed based in part on ability to pay and not where the most critical needs are located. 

With a lack of nationally coordinated action, some governors have shut down all non-essential businesses and issued directives to shelter in place. Meanwhile during a critical phase of the outbreak, the governor of Oklahoma tweeted pictures of himself and his family at a restaurant as though all was normal. When the governor of Florida rejected calls to shut down the state’s public beaches at the height of Spring Break reveling, local governments in the state acted on their own to close the beaches. But when local government units in Mississippi issued bans on public gatherings, the state governor overrode their actions with an executive order that declared most businesses “essential.”

Is this any way to solve a national crisis?

Fortunately, many state and local leaders are demonstrating remarkable leadership at a critical time. In a federal system, when national leadership fails, there is still hope for effective action at the subnational levels. Governors Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew York City to add COVID-19 checkpoints at bridges, crossings Don't let 'experts' ruin your Thanksgiving Cuomo reverses on in-person Thanksgiving plans with family MORE (D-N.Y.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.) are among those heralded for their crisis leadership by imposing social distancing and other restrictions.

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There also are examples of regional responses, guided by leaders working collaboratively. Last Monday the governors of Maryland and Virginia, along with the mayor of Washington, D.C., joined together to issue stay-at-home edicts. Without a nationalized response, a collection of state, local and regional efforts is the best hope for mitigating the spread of the virus. But will it be enough?

Public health experts note that the restrictive measures are showing signs of beginning to work. Will remaining states and local jurisdictions join those that have enacted the restrictions so far? Daily televised presidential press conferences are no substitute for a nationalized policy response. The duty, therefore, falls to subnational unit leaders to continue to lead.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of the book “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (2019, Oxford University Press).