The philosophical debate about how strong the federal government should be and how much power should rest with state and local governments is as old as America itself.
In recent decades, this question has been at the root defining the difference between the nation’s two major political parties. Republicans were firmly in one camp: local control.
And yet, in recent weeks, as federal agents surge against protesters in Portland, Ore., against the wishes of local officials, and the White House tells local school districts what’s best for their students, Republicans have been largely absent from the debate. The reason: President Trump has been so loud about how he wants to exert federal power.
While there are many examples throughout Trump’s presidency of this dynamic — Republicans walking away from family values to excuse Trump’s past or walking away from long-held foreign policy beliefs to accommodate Trump’s call for American retreat from a global leadership role — the latest round has ratcheted up a level during the coronavirus crisis.
As states scrambled to buy any and all personal protective equipment for frontline workers earlier this year, the federal government swooped in, and in some cases, snatched up PPE that states had already bought.
This was not some partisan squabble where Democratic governors twisted facts to make a political point against Trump. One Republican governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, diverted a plane bringing PPE from China to Baltimore’s airport where it was met with members of the state’s national guard as a way to keep the federal government from seizing the goods.
But in recent days, the federal government’s attempted takeover of very local issues like neighborhood schools and block-by-block policing is very much in contrast to what has typically been Republican orthodoxy.
In the past week, officials in Oregon have complained that unmarked federal agents have detained and arrested protesters; lawsuits claim they did so without probable cause, in the streets of Portland, inside and outside of a city-approved protest zone next to a federal courthouse. They have also used tear gas on crowds. The mayor of the city basically said it is his job to provide for law and order in this city. He never asked the federal law enforcement officials to come to his city, and he asked them to go home.
However, the Trump administration officials then doubled down. They said that they would expand the use of federal agents to other cities like Chicago and Albuquerque, N.M., to address rising crime.
Just four years ago, Republicans officially came out against such tactics, warning of a too-powerful government. In their party platform, they state as a principle of the party that there should be more local control of education, health care, and policing. There was even this paragraph:
“The over-federalization of criminal justice is one of many ways in which the government in Washington has intruded beyond its proper jurisdiction. The essential role of federal law enforcement personnel in protecting federal property and combating interstate crime should not be compromised by diversion to matters properly handled by state and local authorities.”
Yes, in Portland, the situation has purportedly been about protecting federal property. But it has appeared to stretch beyond that. A federal lawsuit from the ACLU and others are asking that federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security must identify themselves and state the reason they are arresting someone, which they allege is not happening.
To be sure, had the Obama administration done anything like this, Republicans likely would have been outraged. Now, they are silent.
They are also largely silent about the Trump administration’s pressure on and threats against the more than 13,500 school districts in America, each with their own governing bodies. Trump largely ran on the idea that the federal government was imposing too many education rules from on high, whether that involved the Common Core curriculum or transgender rights.
But Trump is taking it to another level. He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are threatening to withhold federal funding to local schools unless they fully reopen this fall. Leave aside that they apparently have no ability to unilaterally do that or that the money disproportionately goes to aid special education, what is happening is that the federal government is trying to make the decision that Republicans in another era (like less than four years ago) would have said was best made at the local level.
Put another way: The federal government wants to be in charge of what happens inside every school.
Trump did seem to backtrack somewhat on Thursday when he announced that schools in coronavirus hotspots should delay opening, while maintaining they do eventually need to fully open or risk losing federal aid.
One ironic twist to all of this dynamic is in the swing state of Wisconsin. Republican leaders there went to the conservative state Supreme Court and won a lawsuit that blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers from instituting a “stay at home” order that didn’t have a mask mandate but did require some businesses to close at the beginning of the pandemic.
The heart of the argument that won: the governor cannot tell local counties what to do. Now some of those local communities are passing their own mask requirements and the same Republican leaders are calling this “government overreach” and wondering what could be done on the state level to prevent this from happening.