Photo Credit: Nick Youngson – Alpha Stock Images
Two days ago – in the midst of a global pandemic – George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, claiming that federal authority in disasters is newer and weaker than many believe, criticized some state governors for requesting aid, claiming governors were distracted in their duties and were “shift[ing] blame” for the crisis onto the federal government. Further, Turley stated that an entirely federal approach to the disaster would be misguided:
Each state can tailor its response to its individual threats or needs, and look to the federal government for badly needed resources. When the coronavirus shifts, the federal government will have these fully functioning systems with people who are intimately familiar with the local terrain. Simply put, our balanced form of federalism was made for this pandemic.
(emphasis added). Turley’s article appears to be an attempt to provide cover for an administration that was delayed and hapless in response to a crisis. While we shouldn’t expect much from someone who has shamelessly toed a partisan line forever – including writing strongly that impeachment was a “Madisonian device” and great opportunity for citizens in different media environments to get on the same page, until a Republican who benefits from significant fake news sources was actually impeached – this is a new low.
Moreover, Turley’s misfire should call our attention to a new conservative tactic – using a crisis that they have thus-far mismanaged to undermine the American people’s confidence in the federal government. We cannot let the current crisis – regardless of its severity – undermine the purpose of government. From suspending environmental enforcement to intentionally undercounting people for the U.S. Census, the Trump administration continues to never let a good crisis go to waste. In reality, even if despite their efforts, after the pandemic curve begins to decline, and life returns more to normal – helped, no doubt, by critical work from states, career employees at the CDC, and the hard work of nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery store workers, and delivery drivers – the Trump administration’s unrelated failures will continue to undermine those very people.
The suspension of all environmental enforcement sets a bad precedent and creates a bizarre incentive for corporations to pollute more now, which not only will cause pollution, of course, but also may require more otherwise non-essential employees to go to work and put more individuals at risk for contracting Covid-19.
The deliberate understaffing of Census counting, without any extension of time to go into communities and reach people who have not yet filled out their form, will undercount young people, people of color, non-citizens, poorer people, and people in urban areas. This is in the same vein as the failed citizenship question, in which the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the short-form of the Census, order to both discourage non-citizens from filling it out and thus undercount them, and to provide individual-level citizenship data to allow states to potentially implement redistricting based on citizen voting-age population, and further underrepresent those individuals.
In conclusion, Turley’s lens – claiming that we should consider which government is best to solve each problem – may be empirically wrong about the response to the pandemic. Beyond that, though, even using his perhaps partisan and misguided lens, we should be able to recognize that this is the worst time for the Trump administration to suspend the long-term administrative actions that must come from the federal government.