12 mars 2020 | International, Aérospatial
WASHINGTON: Legal arcana and the narrow wording of President Trump’s orders are complicating the mobilization of National Guard troops to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus. The Pentagon, the White House, and the states are working urgently to increase the number of troops with federal funding and full benefits, said Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the four-star chief of the National Guard Bureau, in a phone briefing with reporters this afternoon.
Part of the problem is that President Trump has not actually authorized federal funding and benefits for every state. Only 34 states and three territories are currently covered by his call-up orders, with 16 states and the District of Columbia still ineligible. (The full list is at the end of this article). Indeed, it’s not clear that all states have even requested federal support for their Guard troops, especially in rural areas where the spread of the virus has been slower and suspicion of the federal government can be high.
Even once the president authorizes a given state, FEMA must still approve each request for funding. Finally, until yesterday, President Trump’s orders only permitted Guard troops to operate under federal orders for up to 30 days – one day too short to qualify for federal health coverage and other benefits.
So how many servicemembers are affected?
Why aren’t all troops on federal orders already? And why aren’t all the troops on federal orders getting full benefits? That has to do with the often-obscure laws governing the National Guard and the way President Trump has chosen to invoke them.
First, Trump hasn’t yet authorized federally funded Title 32 call-ups across the country. Instead, on March 22, he authorized them only for Washington State, California, and New York – the three initial hotspots – and then began adding states a few at a time in subsequent orders on March 28, March 30th, April 2nd and April 7th.
“FEMA generally gives shorter duration mission assignments, normally two weeks,” Lengyel explained, since most domestic disasters take less than a month to resolve. “We in the National Bureau and the Department of Defense saw this [coronavirus] clearly is going to go into May and maybe beyond, [but] FEMA was restricted [in] writing the mission assignments to what was authorized in the presidential memorandum.
“I don’t want to speculate on why they chose 30 days, but the difference between 30 and 31 is significant,” the general said. “We recommended a longer period of time at the beginning.”
The National Guard Association of the US, an influential independent advocacy groups for Guard units, members, and families, has been watching the situation intently and pressing for an expansion of the Title 32 orders.
Consistency has been lacking, lamented John Goheen, NGAUS’s chief spokesman: “It’s really a patchwork as you look around the country, and states are going to interpret things differently.
“Section 502(f) of Title 32 was never designed for this. As a result, we are seeing of lot of bureaucratic obstacles and inflexibility,” Goheen told me this afternoon. “Case in point is the limitation on the number of days. NGAUS will be looking to change the law in the future to provide more flexibility.”
The last time Title 32 was used on such a scale was Hurricane Katrina, Goheen said “There were some concerns [after Katrina] about the Defense Department being reimbursed so the Defense Department’s been reluctant to use it,” he said.
However reluctant the Pentagon bureaucracy in general may be, Gen. Lengyel made clear he is trying to fix the situation. “We’re authorized now to bring on up to 44,000 total members of the National Guard covered under …Title 32 … which gives them federal pay but state control, and now — because the [April 7th] memorandum allows them to be covered for up to 31 days — they will have full insurance and medical benefits,” he said.
But troops who were authorized earlier on shorter orders will have to be switched to 31 days, and making sure all new call-ups are for 31, is an ongoing process, Lengyel acknowledged: “There was some sand in the gears on making sure that we had the cost figures right so that FEMA had the exact numbers.”
Meanwhile, he said, his staff and the states have started planning for the annual hurricane season. “By hurricane season, which starts in June, obviously, we’re hopeful this begins to lull,” he said, “[but] we in fact are looking at implications of what it might be like to do a hurricane response in a COVID environment.”
His staff and the states Guard headquarters, he said, are conducting their planning by telephone and video-teleconference (VTC) instead of the usual in-person meetings.
Below is the full list of which states President Trump authorized for federally-funded National Guard callups, by date:
12 mars 2020 | International, Aérospatial
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