Commentary: Governors must work together on Covid response

Presenting a united front, they can push action on testing, supply production and a mask mandate.

By Robert McCartney / The Washington Post

Too much of the country failed to listen when public health experts warned that we needed a coordinated, national strategy to contain the novel coronavirus. Now the upsurge in cases and deaths has proved that doctors and scientists were correct: We shouldn’t let each state go its own way.

Unfortunately, the institution that would normally manage a common approach — the federal government — has forsaken the task in what history surely will record as a mind-boggling abdication of responsibility.

So, in the current crisis, it is up to the nation’s governors to set aside political differences and forge a collective response. They should work together, and with the private sector, to increase testing capacity and coordinate distribution of testing supplies and medical gear.

If things get bad enough, they could call for a national mask mandate or even a shutdown. At the least, they should present a united front to the White House and Congress in demanding more forceful federal action, including fresh aid to state and local governments.

Happily, a bipartisan organization already exists and offers a framework to do all that. It is the National Governors Association, or NGA, which already has provided outsize leadership in the pandemic and could do more if the political will is there.

The NGA comprises the governors of all 50 states, plus those of five territories and commonwealths. It focuses on policy rather than politics. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, isn’t a formal member but has been included in many discussions on Covid-19.

Under the leadership of its current chair, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and vice chair, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, the NGA successfully pressed the Trump administration to take steps that it might otherwise have neglected. These included using a federal law to force private companies to increase production of ventilators and deploying the National Guard to assist states in testing and delivering supplies.

“There are probably 40 or 50 things that we did get done because of pressure from the NGA,” said Hogan, who will hand over the chairmanship to Cuomo on Aug. 5 as part of a normal yearly rotation. “At a time when there’s just tremendous divisiveness and dysfunction in Washington, I think we’ve been sort of a shining example of the opposite and the way to get it done.”

Independent analysts agree. “Governors are stepping up and filling the leadership void that is missing from the White House,” said Jessica Taylor, an editor at the Cook Political Report.

A major obstacle to more cooperation is the reluctance of many Republican governors to steer an independent course for fear of angering President Trump or the GOP base.

Cuomo says the governors can press the federal government to do more, but he is “dubious” about them uniting in collective action. He noted that he failed in the spring to persuade them to use the NGA to form a collective purchasing agency for personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns.

“You’d need to get every state to agree, and that’s very hard,” Cuomo said. “They’re mostly Republican governors, and they are saying, ‘You want me to buck the White House.’ “

Twenty-six of the nation’s 50 state governors are Republicans. But some of them are showing increased willingness to distance themselves from Trump as his favorability ratings drop and the virus rages. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered Texans to wear masks weeks before Trump grudgingly recommended it.

Hogan said: “Now that we’ve seen these flare-ups, you’ve seen some Republicans in some of those states take very aggressive actions, and you’ve seen the president change his approach almost completely over the past week or two. You’ve seen him say wearing masks is patriotic. It’s the opposite of the message they’ve been giving for four months or so.”

Hogan said governors are prepared to work with the private sector to increase testing capacity, although they would prefer that the federal government do so instead. The deluge of demand for tests has overwhelmed labs and delayed delivery of results. That in turn makes it impossible to ask infected people, and those with whom they have had contact, to isolate themselves and thus slow the virus’s spread.

“Right now the issue is slow testing across America,” Hogan said. “How do we help these private labs beef up their capacity?”

He continued: “We’re still pushing in the next week or two to get the federal help [on testing capacity]. That’s our first priority, to try to get the federal government to do their own job. But the contingency plan is, how do governors, maybe in collaboration with each other and with the private sector, do the job for them once again.”

Hogan and Cuomo said the NGA, with a staff of 100, doesn’t have enough manpower or money to fully replace the federal government in fighting the coronavirus.

But if enough governors of both parties agreed to speak with a single voice, they could provide a bully pulpit to put pressure on the White House and Congress to provide funds that recession-ravaged states need for testing, tracing, schools and safety net programs.

Hogan and Cuomo have written a joint letter on behalf of the NGA saying the states need $500 billion in the relief package being prepared in Congress. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill supporting that, but the White House and Senate GOP leadership are opposed.

With Hogan as chair, the NGA has been more independent than it might have been. The Marylander is a moderate by GOP standards and has been more willing than most Republican leaders to distance himself from Trump. He has grown increasingly critical of the president in recent weeks as he has prepared to publish a book and let it be known that he is considering running for president in 2024.

Hogan’s independence has annoyed Trump. The president “bristles at me sometimes” during conference calls with the governors, Hogan said.

Cuomo said his priority as NGA chair will be to force the federal government to agree with the governors about who is responsible for what in fighting the coronavirus.

“I’m going to work on clarifying the role of the federal government and holding their feet to the fire,” Cuomo said. “I want to have a clear partnership agreement with the feds on testing, on tracing, on hospital surge, where we have a clear delineation of responsibility that we can hold each other accountable.”

With tens of thousands of lives at stake, all governors ought to find a way to do the right thing. If enough of them sign on, they would enjoy protection in numbers. And they’d just be doing what Trump said he wanted: letting the states be in charge.

Robert McCartney is The Washington Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering government and politics in the greater Washington area.

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