Governors have been forced to take on an inordinate level of responsibility in the COVID-19 crisis.
Instead of a strong national strategy, President Donald Trump told them to forage for supplies needed by health workers. When they tried, they often found the federal government outbidding them. Governors also were left to their own devices to decide when or if they would shut down portions of their economies and for how long.
To their credit, most stepped up, making gut-wrenching decisions to protect health despite the economic damage. Americans have seen firsthand that the states that took the most serious measures early saw results. Minnesota’s case numbers, for instance, continue to rise, but the state has avoided explosive increases in hospitalizations and deaths, in part because leaders here acted early and decisively.
But Trump has grown impatient with the shutdowns and now claims “total authority” over when to reopen the economy, state shutdown orders notwithstanding.
This is a dangerous development. Eric Janus, former president of William Mitchell College of Law, who now teaches constitutional law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said there is no such authority in the U.S. Constitution. “He clearly does not have the inherent authority, and I know of no statute that would give him that authority,” Janus told an editorial writer. “The big danger here, given the past history of this president, is that he will attempt to make compliance with his recommendations a quid pro quo. We’ve seen that before. Is that legal? Probably not.”
Governors across the country are constantly re-evaluating data, struggling to develop cautious, prudent plans for reopening portions of their economies while keeping a watchful eye on transmission rates. They need help from the federal government, not threats.
Instead of attempting to invent broader authority for himself, Trump should responsibly exercise the authority he already has. End the 50-state scramble for supplies and tests. Develop a national strategy for mobilizing every possible resource to develop PPE and tests, and use the clout of the federal government to both command the lowest possible price to taxpayers and ensure need-based distribution.
He should reach out to other countries for the chemicals and materials needed to expedite production of tests, and come to diplomatic agreements on how to improve the supply inventory, and equitably share the distribution. “America First” doesn’t work in a global pandemic with global supply chains.
In the absence of such leadership, governors are on their own. Already two coalitions have emerged to coordinate reopening society — one on the West Coast led by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and on the East Coast by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. We may soon need a Midwest compact, perhaps led by Gov. Tim Walz and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, to create a strategy to reopen this region.
Some governors are working hard to fill the void in leadership at the top. That’s a fallback, but it’s not our best plan. America needs a cohesive strategy that has Washington working in concert with governors and other world leaders.
Our economy and our lives depend on it.