It does not need an abstract but it does need to be answered APA format.
Read the article “Challenges to Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations and Takeaways Amid the COVID-19 Experience” by J. Edwin Benton. Based on the article and your opinion, has American federalism been a hindrance or help in America’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic? Defend your position. How has the political and cultural environment impacted the creating and implementing of policies by local, state, and federal governments to address COVID-19?
American Review of Public Administration 1 –7
© The Author(s) 2020 Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions DOI: 10.1177/0275074020941698
It was inevitable that the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic would thrust the American political system—more specifically, the country’s federal form of government—into both the national and global spotlight. History has taught us that crises are the ultimate testing ground for the sufficiency and durability of any political system. At this still early stage in dealing with the pandemic that has had both severe health and economic consequences, how has the federal system of government—but especially the ability of the national (fed- eral), state, and local governments to work together for the “general welfare”—graded out? The purpose of the article is to provide some early answers to this question.
But, before addressing the fundamental question posed above, it is important to present some fundamental contex- tual information about the U.S. federal structure of govern- ment and the subsequent evolution of relations between the three levels of government.
When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, few, if any, people probably knew how relations would play out between
various levels of government in this unique federal form of government that Tocqueville (1999) referred to as the “great American experiment.” It is doubtful that even the Framers of the Constitution could have foreseen the development of and nuances in the relations among the national, state, and local governments. What was known in those early years of the Republic was that the national government had been del- egated specific powers, whereas the “reserved” or “residual” powers of the states were less clear given the wording of the 10th Amendment. And, in spite of the fact that the Constitution referenced some national/state “concurrent” or “shared” powers, there was uncertainty how this grant of joint author- ity would work. The role of local governments, however, was the least clear as the Constitution was silent on these governments, although anecdotal thinking seemed to suggest that states would continue to create and use them as adminis- trative arms or political subdivisions.
941698 ARPXXX10.1177/0275074020941698The American Review of Public AdministrationBenton research-article2020
1University of South Florida, Tampa, USA
Corresponding Author: J. Edwin Benton, School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620, USA. Email: email@example.com
Challenges to Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations and Takeaways Amid the COVID-19 Experience
J. Edwin Benton1
Abstract The American democratic system of government is being put to its greatest test since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, as the country endeavors to cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That is, considerable pressure continues to build up at the fault lines of governance inherent in the country’s unique federal form of government which explicitly and implicitly expects national, state, and local levels to work together while they also may function as separate, autonomous entities to promote and provide for the general welfare. These fault lines exist where governance and service provision matters necessitate the collective attention and action of two or more levels of government. Both cooperation and conflict are possible interactive outcomes in these situations.
This article provides an early assessment of how national, state, and local governments have worked together since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequently a “report card” of sorts on the functioning of intergovernmental relations in the U.S. at the present time. More specifically, the article will examine the current condition of interstate, interlocal, state-local, and national-state relations. While the findings and observations reported here are certainly enlightening, they should be viewed as preliminary. Followed up research should be conducted to determine if there have been any policy learning has occurred and if such information has been used in improve the quality of governance in keeping with citizen expectations of American federalism.
Keywords federalism, intergovernmental relations (IGR), COVID-19 pandemic, kaleidoscopic federalismhttps://us.sagepub.com/en-us/journals-permissionshttps://journals.sagepub.com/home/arpmailto:firstname.lastname@example.org://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1177%2F0275074020941698&domain=pdf&date_stamp=2020-07-15
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More than 225 years later, we do have a better under- standing as to how the federal system of government has performed and how intergovernmental relations have evolved. Based on the observations of those closest to the functioning of the federal system—elected and appointed officials, “watchdogs” of the public interest (media, “good government” groups, attentive and “civic-minded” individ- uals, and the scholarly community), we now have a better sense of the relations that occur between various levels of government (that is, federal–state, federal–local, federal– state–local; interstate, state–local, and interlocal). The pio- neering scholarly work of Daniel Elazar (1962, 1984) and Morton Grodzins (1960, 1966), but especially Deil Wright (1978, 1988), was particularly helpful in that it chronicled and critically analyzed the evolution of the relations between the federal (national), state, and local governments. In fact, it was Wright who first popularized and legitimized the term “intergovernmental relations” (IGR) as a better focus for the study of the relations between levels of government in the U.S. federal system than the more legalistic term “federal- ism.” Moreover, it was Wright (1978, 1988) who helped scholars as well as government practitioners to refine our thinking about and ability to analyze and explain various patterns of IGR with his identification of what he called “seven phases of IGR.”
It is from this platform that scholars anchor their research agenda and have been able to obtain a better understanding of and appreciation for how the federal system of govern- ment functions and the extent to which officials (both elected and appointed) at all three levels of government interact with one another to better serve the American public. To date, scholarly research has identified and described a variety of ways in which these governments tend to interact. Moreover, the way in which they interact and the resultant IGR can and often do varies from one policy area to another. With the for- mulation of his seven phases of IGR, Wright (1978, 1988) was able to capture and describe the most distinguishing and reoccurring patterns of IGR with the following descriptors and associated metaphors: conflict (layer-cake federalism), cooperative (marble-cake), concentrated (water taps— focused or channeled), creative (flowering—proliferated and fused), competitive (picket-fence—fragmentation), calcula- tive (façade—confrontational), and contractive (de facto— telescopes and whiplash). Most recently, Benton (2018) has suggested that Wright’s seventh phase has given way to an eighth phase that began sometime around the early 1990s and continues to the present time. In this latest phase, IGR is characterized as being “kaleidoscopic” and can be identified by metaphors such as fragmented, push-back, nuanced, fend- for-yourself, and collaborative.
From Wright’s identification of seven phases of IGR and the recent update to it, students of American federalism and IGR have the advantage of being able to look backward to learn that the evolution of IGR was indelibly influenced by the political, economic, and social events of the times. As a
result, one can view and understand the development of spe- cific patterns of IGR through the lenses of the main and peculiar problems and issues of a given point in time, who the primary IGR actors were and what their perceptions of these issues and problems were, and the way in which these IGR actors responded through the enactment and implemen- tation of specific legislation or the issuance of court rulings.
As noted above, each of the eight phases of IGR was marked by unprecedented issues, challenges, prevailing phil- osophical views, and temperament of the day. Americans looked to the public sector (i.e., government) for answers, as it seemed that the private sector was not able to rise to the occasion or their proposed remedies were either unaccept- able or inadequate. This was the dilemma that Americans found themselves in during the Great Depression. Although the public sector was unable or unwilling to provide the req- uisite solutions, the Republican and conservative perspective (especially at the national level) was heavily influenced by philosophies like laissez-faire and Social Darwinism. Strong aversions to this way of thinking inevitably lead to the belief that the role played by government in the lives of Americans had to be reevaluated. Likewise, it also became apparent that old patterns of IGR needed to be reaccessed, fine-tuned, or even significantly restructured to meet the challenges of the day. Is the United States facing a similar situation today in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that may require a can- did reassessment of the condition of IGR so as to insure an acceptable governmental response that is necessary during these uncertain and troubling times? At present, media accounts of government responses to the COVID-19 pan- demic coupled with one’s personal experiences provide a mixed message as to whether the national, state, and local governments are operating at the highest levels of efficiency, sufficiency, and effectiveness either individually or collec- tively in what can be best described as “uncharted waters” (Altschuler 2020; Inskeep 2020).
Given this backdrop, it is important to objectively and critically assess the functioning of American federalism at this particular moment in time as national, state, and local governments are scrambling to respond to COVID-19. That is, it is important to identify what aspects of our federal form of government are working well, what is not working so well, and what, if any, changes are warranted. Any takeaways drawn from such an exercise are certain to be helpful to prac- titioners and elected officials alike going forward.
Making the Grade and Takeaways During the Pandemic
In some respects, the U.S. federal structure of government has lived up to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and per- formed in ways in keeping with the expectations of the Framers of the Constitution and the U.S. citizenry. However, in some other ways, it appears that our federal form of gov- ernment is dysfunctional, performs unsatisfactorily, or, as the
subtitle to Don Kettl’s (2020) most recent book suggests, “doesn’t work” in crises like COVID-19.1
Interstate and interlocal relations: Increased collaboration. Perhaps, the most obvious positive signs of American feder- alism being alive and well and functioning to meet the ever- changing challenges presented by COVID-19 have been in the areas of interstate and interlocal relations.
In the last 3 months, there have been a number of notewor- thy examples of states consulting and collaborating with one another over matters pertaining to the pandemic, but espe- cially at a time when there has been a conspicuous absence of leadership from the White House and Congress (see Benton, 2018; Kettl, 2020). This is not surprising, as states typically are more motivated to collaborate when there is greater fre- quency of contact, interdependence, and mutual benefit (Agranoff, 2012). The first such example during the COVID- 19 pandemic was the emergence of multistate collaboration among New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania whereby they sought to coordinate actions such as the closing of schools, nonessential businesses, parks, beaches, and more. Given the interconnectedness of the states in this region, they were concerned about cross-border spillovers if their public health actions differed and worked quickly to coordinate uni- form policies and even leverage their partnership to oppose a possible federal quarantine. Within a few days, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Massachusetts joined the partnership. Similar compacts formed at about the same time for the same pur- poses among five West Coast states (California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) and seven Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin).
It is important to note that the rise of such interstate alli- ances was not a new feature of American federalism in 2020. To the contrary, greater utilization of interstate collaboration can be traced back to the 1990s. In fact, there have been a number of policy diffusion studies (e.g., see Balla, 2001; Berry & Baybeck, 2005; Pacheco, 2012; Shipan & Volden, 2012; Teodoro, 2009) reported on the existence of stable net- work structures among the states that served to promote the spread of policy innovations. Therefore, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic served only to spur further interest in and development of this aspect of IGR.
Although states have been collaborating more during COVID-19, the same has also been the case for local gov- ernments. In point of fact, the frequency of local govern- ment collaboration has grown exponentially over the last few months, as local officials realize that they will be deal- ing with issues that know no political boundaries and are likely to have significant spillover effects. In some instances, cities (and sometimes school and special dis- tricts and even townships) within the same county, as well as the county government itself, have spent countless hours
in virtual meetings and consulting informally to coordinate their jurisdictions’ activities, adopt emergency policies and monitor compliance with stay-at-home orders, social dis- tancing, curfews, and school and business closings for the collective good of their community, and devise plans to share resources and information. Such has been the case in two large, diverse counties adjacent to one another in Florida’s Tampa Bay region—Hillsborough and Pinellas. In Hillsborough, an eight-person Emergency Policy Group has been formed (mayors of the Cities of Tampa, Plant City, and Temple Terrace, chair of the county commission, two other county commissioners, county sheriff, and a Hillsborough County school board member) to formulate countywide emergency policies and coordinate enforce- ment practices pertaining to many of the issues mentioned above (Frago, 2020). Across the Bay, Pinellas County cre- ated a similar and larger entity (the county has 24 munici- palities) to assume comparable responsibilities including access to public buildings, businesses, schools, beaches, parks, and cultural facilities (Puente & Wilson, 2020).
Another example of interlocal cooperation can be seen in coastal Georgetown County, South Carolina, and its beach communities where they have formed an emergency task force to deal with beach and park access and short-term beach rental property (Howard, 2020). Members of the task force include members of the County Council, mayors of the two towns, and county sheriff. Fearing that inconsistent poli- cies in the unincorporated beach areas of the county (Litchfield Beach and Murrells Inlet) and the two incorpo- rated beach communities (Pawley’s Island and Garden City) would lead to confusion and possible spread of COVID-19, the task force formulated an agreement to have one consis- tent policy to close beaches and parks and put a moratorium on short-term rentals, as well as a uniform date for rescinding these policies when the pandemic subsides.
In other instances, two or more counties or multiple cities in the same region of their states have collaborated to pro- mote social distancing, limit travel in and out of a region, and conserve resources or preserve (potable water, food, medical supplies, etc.). A case in point would be the three coastal counties in South Carolina (Charleston, Georgetown, and Horry), where tourism is a major driver of the local economy (K. Wilson, 2020a). Like what was explained above about Georgetown County, all three counties under- stand that the massive influx of tourists to their beach resort areas (not to mention local residents) would greatly increase the chance of spreading the virus. Therefore, these three counties quickly formed an alliance to curb access to the resort locations and short-term housing used by vacationers. It is noteworthy that collaborating local governmental enti- ties, like the ones mentioned here, have lobbied their state governments for more flexibility in performing their duties and greater authority to employ “thinking-out-of-the-box” ideas that best fit the needs and unique location or character of their communities.
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Although local governments have a long tradition of for- mal and informal mutual aid pacts and other cooperative agreements, they have used the experience of COVID-19 to expand this kind of collaboration to many more scenarios that were never even envisioned before the onset of the pandemic.
State–local relations: Getting better but could be improved. Although so many more services and even regulatory actions of governments have become increasingly “intergovernmen- talized” since the middle of the 20th century (see Reeves, 1981), it has been refreshing to see that state governments (and, to a less extent, the federal government) have been more willing to defer (within reason) to local governments in additional matters. Such episodes of deferral by higher to lower levels of government (but particularly whereby states are deferring to their cities, counties, townships, and school districts while also granting them wider latitude and discre- tion) to make their own decisions in myriad issue areas have been occurring more often during the pandemic. However, this does not mean that states have relinquished ultimate regulatory oversight or setting minimal standards in certain areas but rather they are allowing their local governments to fashion creative solutions that best fit the peculiar needs of their residents and business owners. In so doing, higher lev- els of government are implicitly and explicitly acknowledg- ing that local officials are likely to be in a better position to take policy approaches more in keeping with the uniqueness of their setting and how an issue or problem particularly impacts their community. Moreover, it is recognition that “one size does not fit all,” thereby encouraging the kind of experimentation that the Framers probably envisioned.
In recent weeks, a number of state governors, as part and parcel of initiatives to “reopen” their state’s economy, have acceded to requests from local officials to permit them to determine the best and safest path to transition from a strict “stay-at-home” mode to a gradual reopening of businesses and greater mobility of the public. Examples include the directive policy statements by governors like McMaster (R-SC), Kemp (R-GA), Abbot (R-TX), Polis (D-CO), Inslee (D-WA), and Brown (D-OR) that permit local governments to enact tougher or more relaxed guidelines (Brown, 2020; Collier & Pollack, 2020; Georgia Department of Public Health, 2020; K. Wilson, 2020b).
However, it is important to realize that there could be some veiled downsides to this trend. One is that states may be hoping to avoid potential political fallout in responding to “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” kinds of issues. Stated differently, states may be willing to “pass the buck” and thereby let their local governments incur the wrath of citizens if local efforts turn out to be unsuccessful. A second possibility is that states, knowing that their own revenues are destined to decline appreciably during the pandemic, may be willing to grant greater decision-making authority local gov- ernments given the likelihood of not having enough state
revenue to share with their local governments. If this is the case, local officials will face the prospect of having to raise additional own-source revenue to fund staple services, thus creating a “shift-and-shaft” or “fend-for-yourself” brand of federalism (Harkness, 2014; Shannon, 1987).
One other concern about state–local relations is the occa- sional lack of clear direction or the sending of mixed or con- fusing messages by a few governors to local officials. This is similar to what has been apparent in federal–state relations, with President Trump waffling (or engaging in “double-talk) on critical matters and thereby leaving a cloud of uncertainty for state leaders (more on this point in the next part of this article). A case in point is the series of actions of Florida Governor DeSantis. Within hours of issuing a statewide stay- at-home order on April 1, he quietly signed another order that seemed to override restrictions that had been put in place by local governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 (Contorno, 2020). Then, on the next day, the governor issued a statement saying that the latter order did the reverse, thus instigating another round of confusion. Local government officials’ reactions to DeSantis’s conflicting orders ranged from “I can’t understand for the life of me why he did that” (Hillsborough County Commissioner Chair and the county’s Emergency Policy Group chair) to “DeSantis [is] playing politics with the executive order to say he didn’t shutter busi- nesses” (Pinellas County commissioner) to “I mean, it makes no sense (mayor of Tampa).
In any event, the current challenges posed by COVID-19 is likely to give rise to renewed incentives among home rule advocates and “good governments” activists to lobby state leaders to grant counties and municipalities (and even town- ships) greater latitude in matters like form of government, formal powers, and fiscal authority so that they will be able to better satisfy the expectations of their diverse populations (Benton, 2012).
Federal–state relations: The growing disconnect. Perhaps, the most conspicuous and troublesome feature of American fed- eralism presently is federal–state relations. Relations between the major players in this arena are probably at the worst they have ever been, as the country (and world) endeavors to adjust to the fallout from COVID-19 and makes plans for bringing the country back to some sem- blance of normality. One only needs to pay minimal atten- tion to the daily news pertinent to the COVID-19 pandemic to sense the heightened tensions and schisms that exist between national leaders and officials at the state level. But this is not anything new, as this growing disconnect can be traced back to the last decade or so of the 20th century. As some have mused, it is as though Nero (federal government) continues “to play his violin while Rome (states and their local governments) burns.” Recently, a noted scholar and practitioner (see Glendening, 2020) sums up federal–state
relations in this way: “. . . in many, many instances the fed- eral partner that had been key to solving prior crises is now ‘Missing in Action’.”
Relations between state and national actors that have been marred by intense bitterness and rancor going back to the Clinton administration have only gotten worse since Donald Trump became President and certainly have been magnified during the COVID pandemic. Partisan polarization has ren- dered the national government unwilling or unable to address a range of pressing issues, leaving states (and sometimes their local governments) to try to resolve them on their own. Examples abound of policy areas (e.g., immigration, sustain- ability, climate change, education, abortion, health care, Interstate sales taxation, etc.) where the national government has failed to craft realistic solutions, been too slow in acting, or sent mixed signals. As discussed above, failed federal leadership and subsequent gridlock (on a positive side) have created opportunities for state leadership and collaboration (Bowling & Pirkerill, 2013; Rose & Bowling, 2015).
As the nation battled to respond to COVID-19 in early April 2020, President Trump tweeted that the role of the national government was to serve as a “backup” to state and local governments. This drew heavy criticism from gover- nors across the country, even including some Republican governors like Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. States, locali- ties, and the national government struggled to coordinate with one another and frequently found themselves locked in conflict. The situation has only gotten worse, as meaningful leadership and direction has been sorely lacking from the President and, to a lesser extent, by a politically polarized Congress. But Trump has been begrudging when it comes to providing assistance to states whether it be in the form of money, medical supplies and equipment, personnel from fed- eral agencies and the military, vital information, and so on. The current posture of Trump is in stark contrast to the lead- ership and direction that Americans have come to expect from their president since Franklin Roosevelt. In short, Trump appears to have no discernible, clear-cut plan for the nation but rather responds to changing events as though he is “shooting from the hip” with no clear target.
To make matters worse, the White House’s ability to make sound judgments and provide critical policy leadership (but especially now with COVID-19 pandemic) has been signifi- cantly undermined as a result of going against a long tradi- tion of presidents and their senior political appointees deferring to policy experts in the federal bureaucracy. The most recent egregious case was when the Trump administra- tion purposely ignored or suppressed politically neutral and unbiased scientific data and information about the coronavi- rus.2 It would appear as though the President and many Republicans in Congress are less interested in leading from a position of being armed with reliable data and objective assessments of policy options and are more likely to exhibit a posture of indifference or befuddlement or desire to engage
in political grandstanding, posturing for the November gen- eral election, or making derisive statements about opposing points of view (Mallon, 2020). In sum, one could portray the current relations between national and state officials in terms as being a case of “estranged bedfellows.”
Summary and Conclusion
Providing a comprehensive grade for the functioning of American federalism at any point in time including the coun- try’s current preoccupation with the challenges posed by COVID-19 is no simple undertaking and beyond the scope of this article. Moreover, grading the functioning of American federalism should always be tempered by the following observation of scholar and practitioner Woodrow Wilson (1887): “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one” (p. 200). With this caveat in mind, the tentative analysis presented here does give us some valuable initial insight into the extent to which the IGR implicit in our fed- eral form of government have worked to provide a satisfac- tory response to the current pandemic from both an administrative and a political perspective. In so doing, this assessment also takes into account the important political and administrative sides of American federalism as articu- lated by W. Wilson (1887):
“Our duty is to apply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within system; to make town, city, county, state, and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent with mutual helpfulness. The task is great and important enough to attract the best minds.” (p. 221)
As this article goes to press, several IGR trends have become obvious. First, there has been a conspicuous increase in joint productive and encouraging endeavors among states and among local governments (interstate and interlocal rela- tions) as these governments work together for positive results in dealing with common challenges caused by COVID-19. Although the formation of formal and informal alliances between states and between local governments is not some- thing new (we saw this during the Great Recession), such an activity has surged to higher levels lately. Another emerging pattern has been in the area of state–local relations. Here, it can be seen that a larger number of states have been willing to grant greater flexibility to their local governments in implementing emergency orders and policies in recognition of the argument that “one size doesn’t fit all.” A third trend has been the deteriorating relations between the national government and the states that has been punctuated with high levels of tension and discord, thus leaving states in many instances to have to “go it alone” due to the lack of direction, attention, and leadership from Washington. Although the
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pattern became increasingly evident in the 1990s, it has become much more pronounced during the Trump presi- dency. Although not discussed above, federal–local relations continue to occur in basically the same fashion as they have over the years with administrators at these levels of govern- ment engaging in the usual give-and-take over the imple- mentation of federal programs. However, to some degree, the interactions between these IGR actors are mediated through state officials.
In summation, a mixed picture emerges from an early assessment of the adequacy of the American federalism amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. On one hand, there are some positive trends in some arenas of IGR (interstate and interlocal relations) that bode well for the health of American federalism and its ability to prove itself sufficient during cri- ses such as the present. On the other hand, relations in other arenas of IGR (federal–state relations) continue to be marred by divisiveness and fractionalized actions and would seem to be the antithesis of what is needed to achieve the kind of coordination and efficiency to meet the challenges of the day and successfully accomplish things for the “collective good.” In addition, there are some encouraging signs in state–local relations that help insure the health of federalism. In the final analysis, it is hoped that these takeaways will be beneficial to scholars who focus on theory-building and practitioners who daily must strive to harness the potential in the American federal approach to work for the “general welfare.”
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author- ship, and/or publication of this article.
1. A similar perspective on the functioning of American federal- ism is provided by Peterson et al. (1986), albeit from the oppo- site angle.
2. See the most recent article (McDonald et al., 2020) that speaks to the need for cultivating a culture that recognizes the impor- tance of minimally respecting and giving credence to nonpar- tisan public service leaders and administrators.
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