Federal support for the Guard’s work had been set to end Aug. 21, meaning states would have had to pull Guard members off the front lines by Aug. 7 in order to quarantine for two weeks before returning to their home communities.
State officials and lawmakers have pressed the White House and Defense Department for an extension, saying that they can’t afford to lose the Guard members who have been running testing sites, assisting with contact tracing, building field hospitals, sanitizing nursing homes and stocking food banks as the virus surges across more states.
“I never envisioned that members of the Guard would be playing the roles they’re still playing,” Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, the leader of the National Guard Association, told POLITICO. “They haven’t been able to take a breath or back away. States went into this thing with the hope that they could mostly manage and get through it, but people realizing that this is truly a national pandemic.”
While they welcomed the extension, state leaders and federal lawmakers lamented the reduced funding and the announcement coming so close to the deadline, which forced elected officials and Guardsmen to make contingency plans.
“I oppose a half measure,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO. “I’m worried the White House is trying to downplay the severity of both the virus and the economic crisis. They think if they don’t acknowledge it, it will go away. But that’s incredibly dangerous. There are many states that need that help.”
Over the weekend, because an extension had not yet been announced, some states began transitioning their Guard members from federal to state duty. That means demobilizing hundreds of troops who had been working on testing, contact tracing and other public health efforts and training people to take their place.
“We have taken almost all of our soldiers off the mission as of Friday,” Brig. Gen. Michael Hanifan, the assistant adjutant general of the Nevada Army National Guard, told POLITICO. He added that even with the extension, it will take a week or more to “ramp back up,” during which time services like testing, contact tracing and delivering food to schoolchildren will be limited.
The administration drew blowback earlier this year from governors, lawmakers and administration officials after POLITICO revealed plans to end the National Guard’s federal authority on June 24 — just a day before thousands of Guard members would have qualified for early retirement and education benefits.
On a May 12 interagency call, a recording of which was obtained by POLITICO, Trump emergency management officials acknowledged the benefits cutoff and the hardship states would face if they lost funding for the troops.
The White House, under pressure, extended the deployment until late August. Guard members have now qualified for their benefits, but recent surges in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths prompted states to petition for a longer deployment.
Now, states say they’re grateful for the stability of the five-month extension, but they’re worried about bearing much more of the cost — as congressional negotiators struggle to strike an agreement on the next coronavirus aid package.
“States are being asked to bear significant costs while simultaneously facing an historic decline in revenues,” said Casey Katims, the federal liaison for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “It is incumbent on Congress to deliver sorely needed resources to state and local governments on the front lines of this crisis.”