In summary

State and local officials have been able to lead the battle against the coronavirus crisis because of the opportunities created by American federalism for leading from below.

By Al Sokolow and Peter Detwiler, Special to CalMatters

Al Sokolow is a retired UC Davis faculty member, ajsokolow@ucdavis.edu. Peter M. Detwiler staffed the State Senate Local Government Committee for 30 years, detwiler.peter@gmail.com.

State and local governments fashion their own responses to the coronavirus crisis, while the national government is slow, contradictory and confused. 

How is this possible?  Blame President Donald Trump for the failure of national authority.  Praise the gumption of governors and local officials, backed by the flexibility of the American federal system, for the quick and aggressive responses of these lower level governments.  They are leading from below.

By April 8, at least 42 governors issued strong shelter-in-place and stay-home orders while the other eight states offered softer advice.  To trim the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, governors, big city mayors and other local officials explained protective practices, told residents to stay home, closed nonessential businesses, found more medical equipment and added hospital beds.

California is one of the most aggressive responders.  Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Gov. Gavin Newsom leveled with Californians, proclaiming a state of emergency on March 4.  On March 16, Bay Area county health officials blanketed their region with shelter-in-place orders. In days, Yolo, Sacramento, and other counties followed.  On March 19, Dr. Sonia Angell, California’s public health director, issued her statewide order to stay home, underscored the same day by Newsom’s executive order.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the most visible of responders nationwide.  Using daily televised briefings, he has kept his state’s residents current on trends in illness and death, announced protective measures and invited the private sector to join in resisting the spread of infection.  Cuomo moved aggressively to secure needed medical supplies for his state by working with private industry and Washington. 

Using their power under state laws, county health officers led the local responses.  State laws give them the unique authority to declare health emergencies and restrict private behavior when essential.  Backed by solid science, they used this authority to limit public gatherings and close nonessential businesses.  

In striking contrast, Trump responded to the crisis with initial denial, mocking language and failure to accept the seriousness of the health problem.  This most self-centered, incompetent and fact-challenged of all American presidents arrived late to the disaster scene and promises to leave early. His White House was unprepared for the coronavirus emergency, having gutted the office charged with anticipating and coping with pandemics. 

State and local responders respected the work of their medical professionals.  The most assertive of the responders are elected chief executives — governors and mayors.  Yes they are politicians, possessing considerable amounts of ego and ambition, necessary ingredients for seeking and holding elective public office.  But they are also motivated by personal qualities missing in Trump — a genuine desire to listen to and do good for their publics. Stretching their skills and powers, they take the coronavirus crisis seriously.

The American federal system makes this flexibility possible.  Usually, the national government is the primary or even only responder to a national crisis.  But in the void created by Washington’s inaction, the lower governments have sufficient autonomy to take on the coronavirus.  The U.S. Constitution makes this clear by assigning specific powers to the President and Congress, while giving the states (and their local governments) considerable leeway to act in other matters.  That is the message of the 10th Amendment’s Reserved Powers Clause.

The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the states as “laboratories of democracy” that can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”  That’s exactly what state and local leaders have delivered to their residents during this coronavirus pandemic.  

Yet, state and local actions are not a substitute for what the national government can and should do.  The lower governments lack Washington’s greater resources and legislative tools, including powers to tax and spend.  Besides acting for themselves, the states need White House help with tests, supplies and equipment, including the implementation of the national Defense Production Act.

Another limitation is the fragmented nature of 50 states and their thousands of local governments acting independently and often in competition, as compared to the unity represented by national authority. For all the boldness of Newsom, Cuomo and local health officers, many states still drag their feet.

Our key lesson from the coronavirus crisis is that the federal system really works.  State and local officials stepped in to fill the void left by presidential inaction. They succeed because of the opportunities created by American federalism for leading from below.  This already devastating crisis would be worse without their creative and timely leadership.

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Al Sokolow is a retired UC Davis faculty member, ajsokolow@ucdavis.edu. Peter M. Detwiler staffed the State Senate Local Government Committee for 30 years, detwiler.peter@gmail.com.

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