McKenna: Local government has more day-to-day power than Feds

Mar 19, 2020, 10:59 AM
Coronavirus, Jay Inslee...
Gov. Jay Inslee in early March of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington. (Jay Inslee, Twitter)
(Jay Inslee, Twitter)

State and local governments have been at the front lines of controlling the coronavirus outbreak, both in Washington and the rest of the U.S. That’s largely thanks to the broad, expansive powers they have to enact extreme measures, and the responsibility they have for making tough decisions.

State quarantine laws to protect public health carry ‘real power’

“I’ve been researching this question quite a bit for various clients, and really, I’m impressed by how much authority the law gives to state and local officials,” former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “They really have more power on a day-to-day basis than the federal government.”

That includes the power to enact widespread quarantine measures, prohibit public gathers over a certain size, and even order people to remain indoors akin to what we’re seeing in Northern California.

“The bottom line is when your local health officer decides you need to stay home and shelter in place, she can decide to do that, and you have to follow that rule,” McKenna noted.

That’s where the old adage, “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” comes into play, with local officials entrusted to make a series of difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions.

We’ve seen that in recent days, with Gov. Inslee opting to close down dine-in service in restaurants and bars, canceling large events, and working to balance all of that with keeping the economy afloat.

Coronavirus response ‘Apollo program of our time’

“I thought about it when I was in office,” McKenna said, reflecting on his own time serving on King County Council, and then as Washington’s Attorney General. “There’s a tremendous weight of responsibility that comes with those jobs.  I think the most concerning thing, [and] the biggest source of anxiety for me when I was in office was ‘will I know what to do?'”

When it comes to knowing how to react to a crisis like coronavirus, McKenna describes how leaders lean on experts for advice, and that preparing for these scenarios ahead of time can be crucial.

“You have to rely on the emergency management professionals around you and work with them,” he noted. “And hopefully you’ve done your table top exercises in advance. You’ve practiced, you’ve drilled. But for all of that, when the actual event occurs, that really puts you to the test.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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McKenna: Local government has more day-to-day power than Feds