Watching the media react to federal and state government responses to the Wuhan coronavirus over the past few days, you would think they secretly wished we had an executive branch with unlimited powers—their hatred of President Trump notwithstanding. You would also think they have only a vague idea of what federalism is and how it’s supposed to work.
Many reporters and pundits, for example, seem to think states are almost entirely dependent on the federal government in emergency situations like this. CNN’s Jim Sciutto mused about whether the president will soon be pushing for a national curfew, seemingly unaware that the president has no power to impose such a thing.
But governors do. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday stopped just short of issuing a curfew on businesses, instead signing an executive order that strongly urges all non-essential businesses to close at 8 p.m. every night. He also activated the New Jersey National Guard to help carry out his order.
Local governments are going one step further. Portland’s city manager announced an emergency curfew on Monday, shutting down restaurants, bars, clubs, movie theaters, and any other establishments where people gather. Six counties in the San Francisco Bay area announced a “shelter in place” order for all residents—a population of some 6.7 million people—to remain in effect until April 7. It wasn’t exactly clear how the order would be enforced, but it did call on sheriffs and chiefs of police to “ensure compliance.”
Similar measures have gone into effect across the country in recent days. In New Orleans, police cleared crowds on Bourbon Street, ordering people back to their homes and hotels via loudspeaker. Lockdowns of various sorts were ordered in cities from Florida to Washington state, mostly affecting bars, restaurants, and other places crowds gather.
The President Isn’t a King
But here’s the thing: the president of the United States doesn’t have the power to order these things. For as much as we might think of the federal government as all-powerful, it really isn’t. The founders wisely chose a federal republic for our form of government, which means sovereignty is divided between states and the federal government.
The powers of the federal government are limited and enumerated, while all powers not granted to the feds are reserved for the states, including emergency police powers of the kind we’re seeing states and localities use now. Local governments, as creations of the states, can exercise state police powers as well.
Much of the media seems wholly unaware of this basic feature of our system of government. Exemplifying the ignorance was a widely panned tweet from an editor at The Daily Beast who seemed to think states can’t “govern themselves” without permission or direction from the president.
So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?
— Molly Jong-Fast🏡 (@MollyJongFast) March 16, 2020
After the Trump administration’s announcement on Monday of new, stricter guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, a media chorus arose that it wasn’t enough. “Ok. Someone finally talked some sense into the President two months into this. That’s good. But we need huge amounts of coordinated federal *action* *assistance* and *mobilization* along with the shift in rhetoric,” tweeted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
An attitude of shock and outrage pervaded The New York Times’ coverage—as well as misleading tweets from some NYT editors—of a conference call in which Trump told governors that they should try to get ventilators and respirators for themselves. Many of the tweets left out the full context of what Trump said: “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”
Asked about the Times report later in the day at the press conference, Trump explained that many governors might have a more direct line on this equipment and if so they should go ahead and acquire it themselves, no need to wait on Washington, D.C.
This is of course exactly the way federalism is supposed to work. Besides the media not getting it, many Democrats don’t seem to grasp federalism, either. A group of House Democrats on Monday urged Trump to invoke war powers to order the production of more facemasks and ventilators. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio went on cable news and declared that the federal government needs to “take over the supply chain right now” for needed medical supplies.
As the coronavirus get worse, we’re going to see a lot more actions being taken by cities, counties, and states—many more than we’ll see from the feds, in fact. That’s as it should be. We should expect the government power that’s closest to affected communities to be the most active, while Washington, D.C., concern itself with larger problems, like developing a vaccine and controlling our borders and ports of entry.
To put it another way, President Xi Jinping of China can order every Chinese citizen to stay in his or her home under threat of arrest. He can shutter every business in China by fiat. He can “take over the supply chain” of any industry whenever he wants. President Trump can’t do any of that. You’d think Democrats and the media would be relieved about that—and they might be, if they knew the first thing about federalism.