COVID-19 reaction boosts state government’s role

States may rely less on federal government for public health, other policies

Dealing with the corona virus may be causing a political revolution.

The federal government cannot deal with the required all-out effort to combat the virus. It depends on state governments. When the crisis has passed, it’s likely the country will find that the power of states has increased.

The states have always had the prime responsibility for public health and safety. But they have become dependent on the central supply of services and the greater funding found in Washington. Even now, many are virtually begging for federally supplied ventilators and emergency funding.

At the same time, governors are making their own decisions about meeting the crisis. State legislatures, included Maine’s, have given governors almost dictatorial powers to take swift and broad action to allocate resources and mandate closures.

There really was no choice. Given the size of the country, the requirements for preserving health and safety must respond to local circumstances. A crisis may not be the same everywhere at the same time. Management is left to the elected leaders closer to threats.

Also, responding to health and safety emergencies requires armies of personnel – doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, law enforcement, crisis managers. The federal government could never have been expected to maintain such staffs.

In this crisis, where the federal government might have been expected to supply masks, gowns, respirators and other critical supplies, it has failed. Instead, it has told the states that procurement is up to them with whatever help the federal agencies can provide.

More important than these issues is the obvious tension between President Trump and some of the states.

Until quite recently, Trump had continually tried to minimize the corona crisis. The health problems had led to economic setbacks, undermining the main support for his reelection effort. If people could see the Covid-19 situation as a mere passing flare-up, the economy could quickly recover.

The president tried to convince people that many die from the annual flu or auto accidents without disrupting the country and its economy. The fact that both could be controlled and limited make them sharply different from a virus that is uncontrolled and whose fatal spread is worldwide.

But governors are on the front lines. Some have seen cases mounting rapidly, including deaths. They could not obtain, either from the federal government or through their own efforts, enough tests, masks and ventilators to stop the increase. Maine gets 5 percent of what it requests.

The Maine CDC reports daily with hard data on medical and social measures relating to Covid-19. A federally endorsed model, said to be close to the one the White House is using, differs considerably from Maine’s current baseline. That could call the federal forecast into serious doubt.

The fight against Covid-19 promises to be a long one, no matter how much people would like to believe that Trump’s hopes and expectations can be achieved.

When the worst of the crisis has passed, it is likely that states will not fade back into purely subordinate roles to the federal government. The virus may have inoculated many states against excessive dependence on the federal government.

Beyond that, governors have had the experience of partisanship coming ahead of dealing with the crisis as one country. Washington was the first state hit hard by the virus. Speaking of Gov. Jay Inslee, who had sought the Democratic presidential nomination, Trump said, “ He’s a failed presidential candidate. He’s a nasty person. I don’t like the governor of Washington,” so he had Vice President Pence talk with him.

Of the nation’s governors, Trump said, “I want them to be appreciative.” It seemed like the federal government was doing them a favor in providing assistance instead of helping them take care of their state in the national emergency that he had declared.

The states’ relationship with the federal government is coming up short. In part, that’s because the states have allowed some of their powers, safeguarded in the Constitution, to slip to the federal government. The reason is simple: money.

The federal government can borrow and create money, neither which can be done at the state level. Politically, states have found it easier to depend on funds from the growing federal debt than on paying their own way to protect public health and safety. States have turned to the federal government for almost everything.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown states the consequences of excessive dependence on a federal government with different priorities than meeting their basic needs.

Congress could come up with more money to help states to deal with Covid-19. But that aid may not lead states to overcome their doubts about relying on the federal government.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.