When it comes to mitigating the effects of COVID-19 in America, President Trump has made his opinion clear: states need to do more. 

“Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work,” Trump said March 19. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

The problem? Many governors have said they either don’t completely agree with that approach or outright think the opposite.

What’s the right approach? Probably somewhere in between, according to Virginia Tech political scientist Karen Hult.

“Federalism is designed based on the interplay across levels of government — for both conflict and cooperation,” Hult said. “There’s considerable evidence now of the national government, though probably belatedly, stepping in.”

Hult noted that the president and his advisors have undertaken federal action and have the authority to do more through various legal mechanisms. President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, for example, allowing him to invoke powers under the National Emergencies and Stafford acts. The Defense Production Act allows the president to order manufacturers to produce needed medical equipment, and Trump has already initiated that process, most recently ordering GM to produce respirators.

Additionally, Hult pointed out that under existing law, the U.S. surgeon general has “the power to prohibit in whole or in part, the introduction of persons or property from such countries or places as he shall designate” to stop the spread of disease.

Other federal actions have included congressional passage of several bills to assist business, households, hospitals, and others. Meanwhile the U.S. Justice Department is addressing concerns with price gouging, and the Army Corps of Engineers is working throughout the country to repurpose existing structures into temporary hospitals, Hult said. 

Hult noted that a host of other federal agencies like FEMA, the FDA, the CDC, and HHS are involved as well, as are the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

“Meanwhile – much as the Framers probably would expect – many states like New York, California, and Louisiana, and localities like New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles have been taking action, typically under governors’ and mayors’ emergency powers,” Hult said. “This can be seen as both compensating for slower federal responses and complementing such responses by identifying needs and helping direct responses to the greatest needs.”

 [MoreFind additional Virginia Tech expertise related to COVID-19 here.] 

That approach has worked in the past, Hult said.

“It might well need rethinking, but I’m cautious,” she said. “States and localities typically are better informed about contemporary conditions, including available financial, staffing, and outreach resources, as well as other existing needs.”

Despite that, there are precedents for the federal government stepping in to help multiple states — or all of them — in a similar way:

  • Infectious diseases: the 1918 influenza pandemic, the development of a polio vaccine in the mid-1950s, H1N1 influenza pandemic from 2009 into 2010, and more recent outbreaks of Zika and Ebola
  • Economic crises: the Great Depression, Great Recession, several energy crises, and stagflation in 1973 and 1979
  • National security crises: including Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attacks 

“In many of these instances government officials and others missed or minimized signals of the coming crisis,” Hult said. “In others, initial responses were slow, counterproductive, or misdirected. In most, the difficulties of making decisions with limited, volatile, and uncertain information were highlighted, frequently worsened by ideological, partisan, professional, and interpersonal disagreement.

What’s missing now? 

“We still largely haven’t seen consistent, systematic, evidence-based national direction and guidance,” Hult said. “As in these earlier crises, many look to the U.S. presidency, and what’s happening now will be a major moment in history.”

About Hult

Karen Hult is a professor of political science and chair of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Administration and Policy. Among other topics, her research focuses on the U.S. presidency, U.S. executive branch departments and agencies, and U.S. state politics, policy, and governance. See her bio.

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