With unemployment claims dramatically rising and a turbulent stock market causing financial waves, policymakers have turned to how (and when) the American economy will rebound from Covid-19.
For his part, the President has offered his own deadline. Yesterday, he proposed  to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” Headlines  soon  emerged  that he was working to “reopen” the economy. But the economy is not a lightbulb, set to be turned on or off when convenient. And even if it were, it would not be the President’s fingers on the switch.
To understand why not, it’s useful to consider why millions of Americans are stuck at home in the first place. After all, it was not the President who ordered a nationwide lockdown (although there were enough rumors that FEMA set up its own “rumor control” webpage ). Instead, a patchwork  of state and local officials in over half the nation’s states ordered residents to stay at home and non-essential businesses to close.
Why didn’t the President do it? Well, in addition to being unwise (and unpopular) policy, he didn’t order a nationwide lockdown because he doesn’t have the power to. The Constitution grants the federal government limited powers, and the power to quarantine people in their homes is not one of them. Instead, according to the Tenth Amendment, such police powers are left to the states. And, accordingly, by using state constitutions, state law and local ordinances, local officials—not the federal government—have effectively “closed” the economy.
And just as the President did not have the power to do that, he similarly does not have the sole power to spur its resurgence. States have a small role, ultimately allowing businesses to reopen and offering small grants to struggling small businesses, but it is Congress that will provide the most impact.
So far, with its “power of the purse,” Congress has been willing to write substantial checks. Just four days after the first confirmed coronavirus death in the United States, it authorized  $8.3 billion in emergency funding, including money for local grants, medical research and humanitarian assistance. This afternoon, Congress is set to authorize a $2 trillion stimulus package to help offset the recent economic fallout.
To be sure, the President is not a passive observer in the current crisis. His near-daily press conferences grab national attention, and he holds tremendous influence over Republican politicians and voters. The President also has statutory authority  to invoke emergency declarations that free-up certain funds and relax regulations. Past legislation  also allows the federal government to prioritize their contracts and incentivize private businesses to produce needed materials. And due to the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, the federal government does have quarantine power  in limited places, such as ports of entry.
Yet, in the end, even these broad authorities do little compared to the vast police power afforded to the states and Congress’s control of the purse. And, that’s precisely the way our federalist system is designed.
Image credit: dhorsey 
- “proposed”: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/24/trump-wants-to-restart-economy-by-mid-april-146398
- “Headlines”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/business/trump-coronavirus-economy.html
- “soon”: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/489251-trump-says-he-hopes-to-have-economy-reopen-by-easter
- “emerged”: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trump-assures-public-his-team-is-working-on-sophisticated-plan-to-decide-when-to-reopen-economy
- “webpage”: https://www.fema.gov/coronavirus-rumor-control
- “patchwork”: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-stay-at-home-order.html
- “authorized”: https://www.legbranch.org/what-has-congress-done-about-coronavirus-so-far/
- “statutory authority”: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/03/13/coronavirus-national-emergency-questions-answers-trump/5026463002/
- “Past legislation”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/us/politics/defense-production-act-virus.html
- “quarantine power”: https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/aboutlawsregulationsquarantineisolation.html
- “dhorsey”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/dhorsey