Safety is Still a Local Issue

This is a time for every level of government to remember the things it does best.
November 2001
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Two images in particular stand out for me in the immediate confusion of the September 11th terrorism. One is the image of New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani immersing himself in the danger and debris at ground zero as he rallied his troops for an emergency response. The other is of the President of the United States trying desperately to get out of harm's way as he flew from Florida, to Louisiana, to Nebraska and finally that night back to the White House in Washington, D.C.

These observations are meant neither as praise for Giuliani nor as criticism of President Bush. They are offered simply to illustrate the different and clearly outlined roles of local, state and federal government as they were thrown into stark relief by the disaster: When it comes to domestic issues and incidents, the buck really does stop with the states and localities. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Giuliani was doing his job; the President was doing his.

That's worth remembering as the country contemplates a panoply of policy actions and reorganizations in response to the disaster. While there has been much discussion about new laws and programs designed to centralize airport security and coordinate intergovernmental law enforcement, there has been far too little talk about preserving the essential roles of local, state and federal government and getting back to the basics of playing those roles.

The attacks should serve as a reminder--a harsh one, to be sure--that rather than dabble in the minutiae of education, social policy or even criminal justice, Congress and the President should be spending the bulk of their time and energy on the whole area of international relations. Those other issues properly belong to the institutions of state and local government.

In a recent conversation I had with Michigan Governor John Engler, current chairman of the National Governors' Association, the subject of the terrorist attacks naturally came up, and he wasn't shy in expressing his intergovernmental view of things: "The Founding Fathers had it right," Engler said. "They assigned multiple and enumerated powers to the federal government and reserved the others to the states. I think we've seen from the tragedy of September 11 that Congress needs to be focused on international issues, on issues of foreign affairs and intelligence gathering and in operating our military." State and local government, Engler insists, can ably handle the rest of the responsibilities.

In fact, that ability was well illustrated by the remarkably rapid and effectively coordinated response of state and local emergency and relief agencies after the attacks. Within minutes, emergency response efforts were in effect in New York City and New York State; Arlington, Virginia; and rural Pennsylvania. Fire fighters and emergency medical technicians started moving, hospitals implemented their disaster emergency plans and outside relief agencies--the Red Cross most notably--began coordinating support services, all before the first calls even went out to mobilize National Guard units in thousands of locations around the country.

Certainly it took time to bring complete order to all the scenes, but considering the suddenness and appalling scope of the chaos, the coherence of the state and local response was nothing short of amazing. Then again, that's what state and local governments are good at. It's one of the many things they do, and do well.

So before we implement any sweeping policy or program changes with major intergovernmental implications, officials at all levels need to convene--perhaps under the auspices of Governor Tom Ridge's new, ominously named and probably toothless Office of Homeland Security-- for an intergovernmental summit on security, terrorism and disaster response. That summit should focus on reasoned discussion of future needs and responsibilities, and which level of government might appropriately step in to handle them. It should certainly focus hard on cooperation among local, state, federal and international law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies. But it should also pursue a disciplined analysis of any implications the attacks might have with respect to the traditional roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local government, and of ways to make sure that we don't stray too far from those roles.

In the wake of any threat this serious, there always tends to be an inclination to act for the sake of action. But this is not a time to create new layers of federal bureaucracy, to assign sweeping new responsibilities to one level of government or take them away from another. It's not a time to pass reams of new laws because it feels good to pass them, or implement new policies by federal fiat because the poll results seem to call for it.

In the aftermath of the attacks, it's time for all three major levels of government to remember something very simple: The feds need to get back to the national and international knitting; states and localities need to enhance their capacity to do the work that needs doing at home.