“Now we in West Virginia want to embrace all and have people come from all walks of life when this is over — but right now, we don’t want you to come. And we want you to hear us: We don’t want you to come across our borders.”

Those were the words spoken today by Governor Jim Justice (R) — one of a handful of state officials issuing directives restricting travel across state borders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposals to restrict interstate travel, whether implemented or not, sit uncomfortably in the public mind — a threat to the last shreds of a union left in the idea of federalism. But they have historical antecedents, and not merely in local quarantines during the 1918 flu. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, national business associations complained loudly about interstate trade barriers, depicting them as walls around chief exports or military barricades situated at the state line.

Federalism mutates, sometimes in reverse.

State Trade “Walls”
Retaliatory Tariffs in the States

COVID-19 has brought a level of attention to state and local governance perhaps not seen since the urban crisis of the late 1960s. And — if you’re not willing to grant me that — you might at least acknowledge that governors have in the last few weeks taken a level of visibility that has few analogues in recent history. No one — not even federalism scholars — mentions annual “state of the state” addresses in conversation. Yet governors’ daily press briefings now occupy a prominent place atop YouTube’s landing page.

The easiest explanation for the attentional shift is the wave of state actions in response to the crisis. Because of their near-monopoly on parens patriae authority — not to mention the raw materials for the enforcement of public-health protections — states (and by extension localities) play a constitutive role in pandemic response. Unsurprisingly, business associations concerned with the economic fallout from social distancing are flocking to state capitals rather than Washington, DC.

But there is more afoot in the resurgence of the states. Americans warehouse their optimism in the idea of the local. Trust in government finds its greatest foothold in cities and towns first, and state governments second. The federal government trails far behind.

The resilience of trust in subnational governments — particularly in local governments — cannot be charged to a greater level of familiarity with the local. Turnout in municipal elections and knowledge of local politics is, it must be said, abysmal. Nor does it reflect a public awareness of governments’ capacity to respond to crises. Fiscal constraints on states and municipalities have long hobbled their capacity to weather crises in the absence of massive federal assistance. The diffusion of stringent Balanced Budget Requirements and Tax and Expenditure Limitations in the 1970s and 1980s has only reinforced these deficiencies. During and after the Great Recession, states relied heavily on budget cuts to address surprise deficits, and pushed revenue increases into the future.

As states enter budget season and are forced to reconcile planned spending with dismal forthcoming revenue projections, the scale of the fiscal crisis will become painfully visible. Congressional action to date is essentially immune to this fact. The CARES Act provides $150 billion to support state and local governments’ fight against the coronavirus. Yet the scale of assistance subnationals will need to meet residents’ needs is vast. State revenues fell 9 percent during the Great Recession — roughly $246 billion. If anything, the CARES Act may be remembered for authorizing the Fed to purchase municipal bonds. Unless Congress acts again to stabilize state and local finances, state officials will be pressured to make draconian cuts to needed services — including essential health programs.

Of course, not all governors will necessarily respond to gaps in fiscal capacity by aggressively seeking relief from Washington. I’m reminded of this story James Patterson tells in The New Deal and the States:

Aubrey Williams, later a high ranking New Deal relief official who was then working for the American Public Welfare Association, sadly recalled the devious means which he used to persuade politicians to apply [for federal relief]. The governor of North Dakota had to be dragged on a guided tour of poverty before he called for assistance. In Alabama, Williams secured the governor’s ear only by claiming falsely to be a relative of former Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, an idol of the governor. In Texas he overplayed his hand, and the state legislature, afraid that he would uncover corruption, passed a resolution demanding his departure from the state.

Voters have far greater expectations of governors — and of government — today. Yet crises nevertheless provide fertile territory for ideological advocates of austerity. As Jamie Peck argues, budget crises help to constrain state and local politics, which is increasingly “framed by and subjugated to the hegemonic model of long-run tax restraint and local expenditure cuts.”

The irony is that if the federal government is up to the task of general intergovernmental aid, it may help to perpetuate the fiction that human needs can best be addressed by subnational governments. If governors and mayors appear as beleaguered heroes in polo shirts, it may also sustain the equilibrium that keeps participation in subnational electoral contests so low.

The boundaries of federalism seem more visible than ever — even inescapable. Yet it is how they are interpreted and enacted that matters.

Assistant professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)

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