The Obama administration is suddenly a champion of states' rights when it comes to the Ebola quarantine controversy.
“You could take that up with James Madison,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters inquiring about why there isn’t a sole national standard for isolating people who might have Ebola. “We have a federal system in this country in which states are given significant authority for governing their constituents. That is certainly true when it comes to public safety and public health.”
Even the Associated Press couldn't help but point out the hypocrisy. Directly after the Earnest quotation, reporter Josh Lederman wrote:
That's ironic, perhaps, coming from an administration that Republicans typically accuse of exceeding its legal authority on issues like immigration, health care and foreign policy.
Politico's commentary from the usually left-leaning constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley was also telling:
“It’s somewhat surprising to see the White House suddenly turning into a states’ rights organization in the Ebola controversy,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “This is one of the most antagonistic administrations towards federalism principles in the history of this country.”
He added, “The Obama administration has been in court insisting health care is a federal matter and states have a limited role at best.”
The AP states that the governors' actions have "sowed confusion" among an "anxious" public. But federal government agencies have also sent mixed messages.
A dozen U.S. troops returning from West Africa are under quarantine in Italy per an Army directive. But the Army is the only military branch to mandate quarantine so far, and the White House refuses to give an opinion.
Meanwhile, CDC Director Tom Frieden said that some policies might "increas[e] the stigma" against health workers and "giv[e] false impressions" about how Ebola is spread.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also warned about the "unintended consequences" of a quarantine.
But both have acknowledged that the states are within their rights to "go the extra mile," as Fauci put it. However, Frieden chastised, we must ensure the health care workers are recognized as heroes and not turned into "pariahs" -- as if that is what the governors are actually doing to protect their residents.
And if that isn't ambiguous enough, some experts are declaring that the federal government does indeed have the right to supercede states' authority. From Politico:
Though asserting itself over states could cause the White House political and logistical headaches, Jennifer Nuzzo of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center explained that it was possible.
“If they want to, they could potentially say, you’re unnecessarily interfering with interstate travel,” she said. “What it amounts to is preventing states from taking action that would unduly affect interstate travel and trade.”
The bottom line: The White House could take unilateral action here, one way or the other, but it is deferring to the states for once, for the sole purpose of taking political cover. Confusing? Not really.