Can Federalism Survive the Coronavirus?

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To conservatives and libertarians, federalism—the constitutionally mandated separation of powers and tasks between the states and the federal government—is one of the features of the U.S. political system. To liberals it is mostly a flaw, because it limits Washington’s ability to control every aspect of our lives.
Once again federalism is being put to the test—because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
That’s the essence of our federalist system. The states, through the Constitution, granted certain powers to the federal government. All other powers and functions are supposed to be left to the states or the people. I say “supposed to” because as the years have passed, the federal government has increasingly asserted and kept powers it was never originally granted.
President Trump has tried to respect that federal-state balance during the coronavirus outbreak. He has been reluctant to begin dictating to the states what they should do, preferring to let each state’s own elected officials make that determination.
To be sure, Congress has passed laws giving the president enhanced powers in times of emergency. The key provision is the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which was invoked in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza pandemic.
And some are calling on the president to assert his authority and impose one-size-fits-all restrictions across the country. But that may not be appropriate—at least not yet.
Currently, about a third of the nation’s counties (1,297 out of 3,142) have no COVID-19 cases, according to the Associated Press
Most of the virus-free counties are thinly populated, rural areas, where a modified-type of social distancing is a way of life.
Decisions about whether to shelter-in-place ideally should be left to the states’ governors, county officials and mayors. If and when COVID-19 cases begin showing up in the nation’s isolated, rural counties, elected officials can take the appropriate steps. If it becomes clear a coordinated federal response is necessary, the feds may step in.
Emergencies and disasters open the door for politicians to grab powers they were never intended to have. As Ann Applebaum recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Around the world, rulers are using the pandemic as an excuse to grab more power. And the public is going along with it.” Once the crisis abates, governments often keep those newly acquired powers.
Our federalist system is intended to prevent that type of power grab. But emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic always create the risk that federalism will be one of the victims.

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