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America's Governments Are at War with Each Other

The pandemic has stressed the federalist system to the point of open conflict. The feds, states and localities are all at odds over responses to health, the economy and public safety.

President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday expansion of the Justice Department's "Operation Legend" program to Chicago and Albuquerque. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)
Federal officers guarding a courthouse in Portland, Ore., teargassed Mayor Ted Wheeler on Wednesday night. It was perhaps the most tangible expression yet of the conflict between levels of government.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed an inability among political actors at the federal, state and local levels to pull together. There’s always friction within the federal system. Now, that friction is generating real heat.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced “a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime.” Mayors of major cities including Boston, Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle had already sent the administration a letter saying they won’t welcome armed federal agents.

“Under no circumstances will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted.

The conflict between Trump and the mayors is only one fight within a multipronged war. Trump has been at odds at various times with governors around the country around health and reopening policies. He has threatened to withhold federal funds from school districts that don’t open for in-person instruction. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in turn, wants to block federal COVID-19 relief funds from going to states that don’t have mask orders in place.

We’ve grown accustomed to clashes between branches of government when there is divided partisan control. Now there are similarly partisan fights among the different levels of government. 

“You’re seeing geographical partisanship emerging in a clash of wills between different levels of government that might be controlled by different political parties,” says David Robertson, author of Federalism and the Making of America.

Multiple governors have pre-empted local governments on health restrictions. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to block her mask order. Dozens of sheriffs around the country have refused to enforce governors’ mask orders.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner says he’ll charge federal agents who assault or “kidnap” protesters in his city. Oregon’s Department of Justice is suing several federal agencies for civil rights abuses in Portland.

Anyone expecting American governments to be able to launch a coordinated response to the worst health and economic crises the nation has faced in decades must be disappointed.

“We would like for federalism to operate smoothly, so we don’t have to think about it,” says Tim Conlan, a federalism expert at George Mason University. “The coronavirus response is actually sort of a perfect measuring stick of our transition to our contemporary, very polarized model of federalism.”

Fragmented Health Response

Carol Calderwood served as public health officer in Ravalli County, Mont., for 13 years. Last weekend, she quit. Gov. Steve Bullock had signed an order requiring indoor face coverings in most counties, but Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton and Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster both said they wouldn’t enforce it. Calderwood wrote that she felt she’d been placed in “another no-win situation by the locally elected officials’ decision to disobey the Governor’s directives without my input.”

Public health has always been fragmented in this country. During previous epidemics, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out the strategy, which was then executed by state and local health departments.

“While all levels of government were involved, they were largely dealing from a common set of core values and beliefs,” Conlan says. “You would likely hear the same response to questions from public health officials, regardless of what level they were at, whether it was the CDC or the county health department.”

Now, there’s argument even within the same level of government. The county health department pleads with the sheriff to carry out its orders. The White House has largely sidelined the CDC, which traditionally would have led federal messaging during a health crisis.

The Trump administration has not presented a coherent strategy for states to follow. After Trump prodded states to reopen their economies, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday blamed them for rising coronavirus case counts, saying they “blew through our phases.”

“What the president and the White House are doing strikes me as completely incoherent,” says Michael Greve, a law professor at George Mason. “On the one hand, they want to say that managing something like this crisis has to be a local or state affair. That impulse strikes me as right. But on the other hand, they then say if you don’t play by our rules, we won’t send you our money. Only one of those things can be right.”

Will Conflict Be Permanent?

Over the decades, federal, state and local actors have worked together closely in areas such as education, public health and road construction. There was always some squabbling, but there was a sense of shared expertise and enterprise in various policy areas, with politicians often deferring to technocratic experts.

That all seems to have been forgotten.

“It’s now been shown how creaky the cooperative federalism model is,” Greve says. “The debate over the schools and debate over what health-care agencies can or cannot do — those are pretty big areas of public life. If the government can’t deliver on that stuff, what can it do? It’s kind of a functional breakdown at all levels.”

Voters may express unhappiness with incumbents in this year’s elections, holding them accountable for the poor pandemic response. It’s also possible that they’ll like what their own partisan team has been doing — cheering on their governors for standing up to Trump or sticking by him, or glad that their local electeds stood up to their states, whether it was in favor of imposing greater health restrictions or attempting to nullify them.

“With divided government and separation of powers, it becomes difficult for the average citizen to pinpoint accountability,” Conlan says.

Like family members that turn on each other during times of stress, the layers of government might carry sore feelings into the future. There’s certainly precedent for confrontational behavior to become routine.

It seemed shocking when Republican attorneys general banded together a dozen times a year to sue the Obama administration by its end. Now, Democratic attorneys general sue the Trump administration three times as often.

“We’re changing federalism from the idea of shared expertise in different policy areas into partisan stakes in the ground that are meant to obstruct opponents,” Robertson says.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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