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The Role Of Governors And The Federal Government During The Coronavirus Pandemic47:20
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President Donald Trump listens during a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci, Pool/AP Photo)
President Donald Trump listens during a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci, Pool/AP Photo)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Kathleen Sebelius, the former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and Kansas governor gives her take about what the coronavirus pandemic reveals about the relationship between states and the federal government.

Guest

Anthony Brooks, On Point's 2020 correspondent. Senior political reporter for WBUR. (@anthonygbrooks)

Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary. Former governor of Kansas. (@Sebelius)

Interview Highlights

What strategy would you use to deal with the federal government at the moment?

Kathleen Sebelius: “It is a little baffling, I think. And trickier than any relationship I had. I was a Democratic governor the entire time I was governor. George W. Bush was president. So I had a partisan difference, if you will, with the president. I wasn't part of his party or his team. Having said that, I think the relationships were pretty straightforward in terms of what the federal government could, would be asked to do — what the states could and would do. And there was always a sense, at least that I had during my tenure, that we were all treated the same. That the rules were pretty clear. We would, in a very bipartisan way, ask for things.

"I mean, for instance, there was always a debate about money. States always wanted more money and less rules. The Feds wanted not necessarily to give us more money, but certainly to have control over what that money did. So that was a pretty typical debate. And Republicans and Democrats as governors joined it together. I think what's very difficult about this particular period, is the Trump administration seems to have a bit upended what that relationship is. So in a disaster — and I had a number when I was governor, nothing I should say comparing to this. ... But natural disasters that took out towns, or floods or, you know, very difficult situations where we lost lives and lost jobs and we definitely needed help.

"But the way the kind of food chain works is you start with local resources. And local government is the first line of defense. The first responders, the first people on the scene, they then call on the state for additional help and resources. And the state, the governor can mobilize the National Guard, send agency help, send additional money. And if the disaster then rises to a certain level, the state turns to the federal government and makes that same kind of request.

"A disaster declaration, additional resources, finances, personnel, materials. And what has happened here is, I think, again, when states uniformly called on the federal government for supplies, for equipment, they were all looking for the same kinds of things. They needed ventilators. They needed personal protective equipment for their first responders. They needed additional resources. Some of that got a bit of a pushback and they were told, ‘No, that's really up to the states to figure out on their own, they should just go find it.’”

"Even with a partisan difference with the president when I was serving, there was not a sense that there were red states and blue states."

Kathleen Sebelius

On how a governor manages inconsistent messaging from Washington

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Kathleen Sebelius: “I think that's one of the things that's got to be incredibly difficult that I frankly didn't see. I wanted to make it clear that even with a partisan difference with the president when I was serving, there was not a sense that there were red states and blue states. There wasn't a sense that if you asked for what you needed, you were called out and criticized for being unappreciative, or mean or whatever. I've never seen a situation where a president singles out governors, and calls them names and belittles their requests, mocks what they're asking for.

"And I think it's not just what's going on in front of the cameras, but I think it puts governors in a very difficult position. Do you then have to not ask for what you need? Do you do it to some other entity? What are you supposed to do? You get criticized for not asking for supplies and materials on one hand, and if you ask for them, then you're called unappreciative, or mean-spirited or making things up.

"It is a very difficult, I think, whipsaw. What I've been told and our current governor, who was just elected in 2018, who I've known for a long time. In fact, was my next door neighbor for 20 years. She has said, and her staff has told me, that the meetings that went on that Mike Pence was running for a while were pretty orderly and straightforward. And in some ways that makes sense because Mike Pence was a governor, and understands this role and had very straightforward discussions with people. They said once … the president joined those meetings, they got pretty chaotic also and less useful. But the traditional lines of authority and command do seem to be very confusing in this current day and age.”

"They said once … the president joined those meetings, they got pretty chaotic also and less useful."

Kathleen Sebelius

On tensions between states and the federal government

Kathleen Sebelius: “There's no question it's costing lives. And It is dangerous on the granular level not to have the federal government use its unique powers and resources to deliver goods and services that they can uniquely do, and that they can get the best price for. And do it in a fair and transparent manner. That's very important. It's very dangerous to have mixed messages coming out of the federal government questioning everything from when we're going to open up, and who's in charge of that, to whether we have a serious disease.

"… Because what that does is undermine any confidence that people are getting straight information in a very difficult time. I mean, people are losing lives, losing loved ones, and they're losing their income and their jobs. It's a terrifying period. And to have no leadership at the federal level delivering not only a message that has some hope and optimism — we're all in this together, we can get through this — but some kind of straightforward communication about what will be done, what the plan is. That's very, very dangerous at this time."

"It is dangerous on the granular level not to have the federal government use its unique powers and resources to deliver goods and services that they can uniquely do, and that they can get the best price for."

Kathleen Sebelius

If there's one piece of advice that you could give Secretary Azar or President Trump himself, what would it be?

Kathleen Sebelius: “It would be to use the unique authorities of the federal government. Get testing ramped up, push it out, make it clear that that has to be a precursor. Listen to the scientists. And then really put in place what has to be a massive effort to not only manufacture but begin to get people ready for both treatments and vaccines. But unify this country and stop having folks compete with one another that uniquely can be done by the federal government. It has to be done, if we're going to reopen the economy in a safe and secure manner and save lives. I think the notion that we've got to save lives and save jobs at the same time is really important. And it can't be one or the other.”

"Use the unique authorities of the federal government. Get testing ramped up, push it out, make it clear that that has to be a precursor.

Kathleen Sebelius

From The Reading List

AP: "US ‘wasted’ months before preparing for coronavirus pandemic" — "After the first alarms sounded in early January that an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China might ignite a global pandemic, the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment."

Boston Globe: "Massachusetts joins multistate pact on post-coronavirus economy" — "Democratic governors in the Northeast — as well as Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker — and along the West Coast on Monday announced separate state compacts to coordinate one of their biggest challenges in the weeks to come: How to begin reopening society amid the coronavirus pandemic."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Shribman: A crisis can reveal character. Four governors have stood out in dealing with coronavirus." — "Calvin Coolidge’s stance at the Boston Police Strike of 1919 catapulted him to national prominence, to his party’s vice-presidential nomination a year later, and eventually to the presidency. Herbert Hoover’s achievement in feeding starving Europeans after World War I gave him the heroic status that led to the White House."

Bloomberg: "Former HHS Chief Sebelius Says Virus Vaccine Process Can't Be Rushed"-- "Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius discusses the clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine. She speaks with Bloomberg's David Westin on 'Balance of Power.'"

NBC News: "Trump backs down after Cuomo, other governors unite on coronavirus response" — "President Donald Trump said Tuesday he's fine with governors making their own decisions about how and when to reopen their states — a quick retreat from the day before, when he insisted that such choices were up to only him because his 'authority is total.'"

This program aired on April 16, 2020.

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