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Sometimes it’s hard to connect how Washington edicts and partisan politics impact real lives. And sometimes that connection is as plain as the graffiti on a New York subway car.
Here’s a bit of news you might have missed in the days leading up to the election: Seattle; New York City; Portland, Oregon; and (possibly) Washington, DC, may not eligible for COVID-19 relief funds intended to help cities make their bus and subway systems pandemic-safe because they are “anarchist jurisdictions.”
President Donald Trump coined that term in a September 2 presidential memorandum after months of demanding harsher crackdowns on the nationwide racial justice protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. The memo—implemented by the Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget—directs the government to deny federal funds to state or local governments that “have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance.” The designation currently applies only to Seattle, New York, and Portland (Washington was mentioned in both the Trump and Office of Management and Budget memos but was omitted from the Justice Department’s announcement), all of which are governed by Democratic mayors.
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The new policy’s first blow landed on October 8, when the Federal Transit Administration announced it is considering applications for a $10 million public transportation COVID-19 research grant. But the new designation effectively bans the so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” from applying for the funds. Seattle, New York, and Portland have sued the Trump administration, seeking to invalidate the policy. The lawsuit alleges the cities stand to lose “billions of dollars in federal funding to provide a range of vital services,” in violation of the Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“The funding threat could not come at a worse time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged municipal finances, draining reserves and forcing painful budget cuts,” the cities’ complaint states.
It should go without saying that federal aid should not be awarded or withheld based on the recipient’s political affiliation. Nor is it sensible to withhold public transit funds from major metropolitan areas that heavily depend on mass transit. If the funding ban is applied to Washington, DC, it’s downright dangerous given the presence of thousands of federal employees working to keep the country safe and functioning smoothly during the pandemic.
The “anarchist jurisdictions” memo is the most explicit attack yet in the Trump administration’s war on Democratic-aligned states and localities. It’s a war that began just days after Trump took office, with an executive order that sought to defund “sanctuary cities” and continued with a tax bill that disproportionately burdened blue states and the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to revoke California’s authority to set tougher vehicle emission standards.
And then the pandemic hit.
“That’s their problem”
The quickly spreading coronavirus devastated much of the economy as America went into lockdown, but it didn’t stop the president’s partisan attacks.
The president continued his assault on his perceived political adversaries. In March, Trump said at a press conference that he told Vice President Mike Pence not to reach out to governors who weren’t “appreciative” of his pandemic response efforts, including “the woman in Michigan,” a reference to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Around this time, there was a meeting at the White House at which senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner reportedly displayed a callous disregard for New York’s shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, when the city was the biggest epicenter of the pandemic. According to a meeting attendee quoted in Vanity Fair, Kushner exclaimed, “[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo didn’t pound the phones hard enough to get PPE for his state. … His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
As the weeks went by, Trump criticized, and even urged defiance of, lockdown measures implemented by Democratic officials. He tried to blame the country’s worsening death rate on blue states, and even asserted that Democratic-led states should not receive pandemic aid because several of those states have been “mismanaged” by their governors, and “it’s not fair to the Republicans.” He later amplified that sentiment on Twitter, where he seemed to suggest that federal aid to states should be conditioned on eliminating sanctuary cities and adopting other GOP priorities such as the elimination of payroll and capital gains taxes and COVID-19 lawsuit indemnification for businesses.
Over the summer, the Justice Department raised eyebrows when it announced a probe into whether guidelines issued by the Democratic governors of Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were to blame for contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The timing of the inquiries (during the Republican National Convention) and the fact that these four states alone were chosen when apparently nursing homes following similar guidelines in Republican-led states were also experiencing outbreaks immediately raised suspicions of partisan motivation.
A week later came the “anarchist jurisdictions” memo, accompanied by Trumpian fanfare via Twitter: “My Administration will do everything in its power to prevent weak mayors and lawless cities from taking Federal dollars while they let anarchists harm people, burn buildings, and ruin lives and businesses. We’re putting them on notice today.”
Trump’s latest attempt to punish blue America raises serious legal concerns. Slapping a special derogatory label on certain cities and stripping them of federal funds arguably runs afoul of the constitutional principles of due process, federalism, and separation of powers. It undermines Congress’s power of the purse, something that Trump seems to have gotten away with in regard to paying for the border wall.
Furthermore, Trump’s war on inspectors general cuts off a potential remedy for the charter members of the “anarchist jurisdiction” club. The Department of Transportation—which includes the Federal Transit Administration—hasn’t had a permanent watchdog for nearly a year; instead, Trump appointed an acting inspector general whose qualifications, experience, and impartiality are a matter of great concern.
We’re heading into a long, difficult, and dangerous winter with the pandemic spiraling out of control amid a tumultuous government transition. The partisan gamesmanship must end if we hope to stop the spread of the virus, ensure that vaccines can be quickly distributed to all Americans, and get the economy back on track. Decisions need to be based on what is best for our entire country, not just for those who live in regions governed by a particular political party.