Subnational Diplomacy: The Key to Strengthening U.S. International Relations

Representative Ted Lieu*


When SARS-CoV-2 (“COVID-19” or the “coronavirus”) began spreading in the United States in early 2020, it quickly became apparent that we were facing a global crisis with consequences for our local communities. The Trump White House decided early in the pandemic to cede most decision-making to the states and local municipalities.1See Kevin Liptak, Kristen Holmes & Ryan Nobles, Trump Completes Reversal, Telling Govs “You Are Going to Call Your Own Shots’ and Distributes New Guidelines, CNN (Apr. 16, 2020), [].

That approach was not illogical. Community health departments and local governments have a good grasp of the unique demographics in their areas and can be quicker to respond to challenges as they arise. But for that strategy to work, state and local governments needed significant support. Unfortunately, the hands-off, uncoordinated approach from the federal government meant local governments did not have the time and resources they desperately needed to crush the virus.2 For example, Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner famously referred to the national stockpile of medical supplies as “our stockpile” and not one belonging to the states. See Nicholas Wu, Jared Kushner Makes Coronavirus Briefing Appearance, Draws Backlash for ‘Our Stockpile’ Comment, USA TODAY (Apr. 3, 2020), [].

In confronting a pandemic that did not care about geographic boundaries, local officials were often forced to improvise without help from the federal government. States opted to coordinate with each other3 See Pennsylvania Joins New York, New Jersey and Connecticut’s Regional Coalition to Combat COVID-19, N.Y. STATE (Mar. 18, 2020), []. and with foreign counterparts.4 See Brakkton Booker, Maryland Buys 500,000 Test Kits From South Korea, Drawing Criticism From Trump, NPR (Apr. 21, 2020), []. Some states struggled to track down adequate personal protective equipment (“PPE”) for healthcare workers5 See Irena Hwang, The PPE Crisis Didn’t Go Away: Across the U.S., Grassroots Supply Networks Are Trying to Fill the Void, STAT (Dec. 1, 2020), []. while others pleaded for federal and international help to expand testing.6 See P. Kenneth Burns, Coronavirus Update: Murphy Says Widespread Testing Needed Before Reopening, WHYY (Apr. 14, 2020), []. In many ways, the pandemic demonstrated that the national government cannot always be as nimble as city and state governments can be when it comes to responding to crises.

While international relations is mainly the responsibility of national governments, diplomacy can be practiced at every level of government. Crises such as COVID-19 and difficult global issues like climate change present opportunities for subnational diplomacy—diplomacy conducted by officials at various levels of government below the national level—to overcome barriers that have national governments stuck in the mud. From governors to mayors to tribal leaders, relationships between officials at the subnational level have and will continue to open multiple diplomatic channels.

At the height of the pandemic, the lengths to which local leaders were willing to go to secure supplies for their communities was staggering. In April 2020, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker coordinated a secret charter plane to bring PPE from Shanghai, China. Governor Pritzker’s plan was meant to circumvent the Trump administration’s alleged seizing of PPE shipments from abroad.7 See Michelle Mark, Illinois’ Governor Organized Secret Flights to Bring Masks and Gloves from China Out of Fear Trump Would Seize Them, BUS. INSIDER (Apr. 18, 2020), []. A hallmark of the desperation and supply chain challenges at the time, the state of Illinois was forced to hand million-dollar checks to intermediaries in parking lots to get more masks, gloves, and gowns for healthcare workers.8 See id.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of subnational diplomacy on the fly occurred in Maryland. Governors like Larry Hogan, who were left on their own to address the ever-worsening crisis, were desperate to build up testing and contact-tracing programs. At the time, testing was considered the key to containing the pandemic.9 See Larry Hogan, Fighting Alone: I’m a GOP Governor. Why Didn’t Trump Help My State with Coronavirus Testing?, WASH. POST (July 16, 2020), []. The initial flaws in the federal Center for Disease Control’s tests set the country back by months in terms of containment, and South Korea had a far more effective testing apparatus than the United States. Hogan and his wife made a direct ask of Korean President Moon Jae-in, touting the “special relationship between Maryland and the Republic of Korea.”10 See Full Remarks: Governor Hogan Announces State of Maryland Acquires 500,000 COVID-19 Tests From South Korea’s LabGenomics, MARYLAND.GOV (Apr. 20, 2020), []. When the tests arrived in Maryland, the Governor called it “Operation Enduring Friendship” and touted his diplomatic efforts to secure 500,000 COVID-19 tests from South Korea.11 A state audit would later find that Hogan did not follow state regulations when he secured the tests, which ended up going completely unused. See Steve Thompson, Audit Criticizes Maryland’s $9 Million Purchase from South Korean Company of Coronavirus Tests That Had to Be Replaced, WASH. POST (Apr. 2, 2021), [].

Meaningful, high-profile subnational diplomacy existed well before the pandemic.12 See Anthony F. Pipa & Max Bouchet, Partnership Among Cities, States, and the Federal Government: Creating an Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the US Department of State, BROOKINGS (Feb. 17, 2021), []. For example, during the Cold War, communities around the country used their local political power to vocalize opposition to nuclear armament.13See BENJAMIN LEFFEL, USC CTR. ON PUB. DIPL., SUBNATIONAL DIPLOMACY, CLIMATE GOVERNANCE & CALIFORNIAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP 2 (2018), [].
In the 1980s, upwards of 4,000 communities in seventeen countries, including the United States, declared themselves “nuclear-free zones” in response to escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.14 See id. In 1987, 700 United States mayors and city council members gathered at the National League of Cities Congress in Las Vegas and signed onto the Nevada Declaration, which called for a national ban on nuclear testing.15 Michael H. Shuman, Ban Nuclear Testing, 2 BULL. MUN. FOREIGN POL’Y 2, 3 (1987).

Today, over fifty-five percent of the world’s population live in cities.16 See 68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas By 2050, Says UN, U.N. DEP’T ECON. & SOC. AFFS. (May 16, 2018), []. That number is expected to climb to sixty-eight percent by 2050.17 See id. Some local leaders oversee economies comparable to those of entire countries. Large cities and counties are claiming more and more economic power in the United States, with one percent of counties in the United States accounting for one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (“GDP”) in 2018.18 See Andre Tartar & Reade Pickert, One-Third of the U.S. Economy is Jammed Into Just 31 Counties. L.A. is the Biggest, L.A. TIMES (Dec. 19, 2019, 1:05 PM), []. Los Angeles County, for example, has an output of $710.9 billion GDP, the equivalent of Saudi Arabia.19 See id. The state of California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, making its GDP larger than that of the United Kingdom and Russia.20 Pat Evans, 16 Mind-Blowing Facts About California’s Economy, MKTS. INSIDER (Apr. 26, 2019, 8:02 AM), [].

Rural jurisdictions and states with rural areas have also benefitted from subnational diplomacy. Foreign officials routinely visit agricultural areas and ink contracts for various agricultural products.21 See e.g., New Trade Relationship With Ecuador Benefits Texas Ranchers, TEX. DEP’T AGRIC. (May 20, 2015), [] (“The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) recently hosted a delegation of agriculture leaders from Ecuador and the United States to facilitate the trade of cattle between the two nations.”). When the Director General of the Hebei Provincial Agricultural Department visited the United States to discuss agriculture and animal husbandry, did he visit the State Department in Washington, D.C.? No, he went to Kansas and met with the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas Department of Commerce.22 See Kansas in Spotlight as Chinese Delegation from Hebei Province Visits Kansas, KAN. DEP’T AGRIC. (May 8, 2015), [].

When subnational actors join forces, they can have an undeniable and far-reaching impact. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a coalition of 97 cities from around the world committed to addressing climate change currently chaired by the Los Angeles Mayor, represents more than 700 million people and a quarter of the global economy.23 See C40 CITIES, []. This subnational effort to address climate change represents a large movement by local leaders to find commonality with foreign counterparts to advance shared goals, even in the face of stalled efforts at the national level. We have seen these principles apply to local responses to the pandemic as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates in the starkest terms what happens when local governments do not have the federal support to address a crisis. It also shows us that states and local governments are already coordinating with foreign counterparts and will continue to do so. What is missing is direct and explicit federal support to help achieve shared goals. In the case of COVID-19, coherent federal support in the diplomatic space would have meant local governments would have had access to information and potentially resources from allies abroad contending with outbreaks in their communities. That type of knowledge-sharing may have saved lives and offered valuable insight into the United States’ COVID response. Instead, the patchwork of local responses left our communities vulnerable to outbreaks. There is much that cities and states can—and already do—learn from other countries through diplomacy, and the federal government has the tools, knowledge, and resources to expand those efforts.

While subnational diplomacy has become increasingly prevalent in United States cities and states as mayors and governors recognize the power of international cooperation for their constituents, the federal State Department has no dedicated structure to support these local efforts to engage with the international community. In 1979, the State Department created an Ambassador-at-Large for Liaison with State and Local Government.24 See CHRIS MURPHY, THE CITY AND STATE DIPLOMACY ACT ONE PAGER, []. But since then, these functions have been folded into a parade of temporary stand-alone offices or into the Bureau of Public Affairs.25 See id. This lack of focused federal support for city and state governments is the reason for the City and State Diplomacy Act,26 City and State Diplomacy Act, H.R. 4526, 117th Cong. (2021). which will support state and local diplomacy with counterparts abroad. The bill will establish an office of city and state diplomacy at the State Department, which will coordinate overall United States policy, programs, and resources in support of city and state engagement with foreign governments and officials. This is a vital tool for our democracy because it ensures a coordinated effort between local officials and the State Department, thereby streamlining and strengthening both federal and local diplomatic aims.

The pandemic has provided a lens through which to view the value of subnational diplomacy. It does not undermine national level diplomacy but rather enhances it. By leveraging federal resources to support cities and states, the State Department can advance foreign and domestic policy goals relating to economic prosperity and geopolitical stability—and help local governments reap the full benefits of foreign engagement in the process.

The City and State Diplomacy Act also provides two other benefits. It helps us push back on near-peer competitors like China that use a whole of government approach to achieve their objectives, by giving United States state and local leaders the tools and knowledge needed to navigate pressure and exploitation by foreign officials. And it helps diversify and increase the actors involved in our nation’s foreign policy. Instead of just having one federal department with a limited number of overworked foreign service officers and ambassadors (with relatively few minorities),27 See Ryan Heath, The State Department Has a Systemic Diversity Problem, POLITICO (Mar. 16, 2021, 12:55 PM), []. we can leverage the expertise, talent, and energy of tens of thousands of city, county, and state officials from around the country who are going to be engaged abroad with or without federal support.

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A Conservative Approach to Early Childhood Education: Building on the Foundations of Success & Boosting Academic Achievement Through Choice

Representative Burgess Owens*


As the son of an educator and a grandfather to sixteen school-aged children, I believe that Early Childhood Education (“ECE”) is essential for many reasons, one of which is that ECE simultaneously provides support for children to learn, for parents to enter the workplace, and for future generations of American workers to grow. I have seen the importance of ECE firsthand as a father and grandfather, as well as in my role as Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.

Raising children is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences in a person’s life. As part of that process, ensuring that children have a solid start is the first step to helping them grow and develop. One of the most important tools at a parent’s disposal is ECE, access to which has significant impact on the foundations that are built for children from birth to fifth grade.1 See Early Childhood Education, CTRS. FOR DISEASE CONTROL & PREVENTION, [].  The impact of high-quality early education on childhood development and beyond cannot be overstated. Americans of all political stripes, alongside local municipalities and private sector partners, must work together to support a strong child care sector that assists hardworking American families.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a significant blow to child care, in-person education, and the American workforce. When most of the economy was shut down, schools and child care centers also shut down.2 See Map: Coronavirus and School Cloures in 2019-2020, EDWEEK (Mar. 6, 2020),,6%20to%20May%2015%2C%202020. []; NAT’L ASS’N FOR THE EDUC. YOUNG CHILDREN, AM I NEXT SACRIFICING TO STAY OPEN, CHILD CARE PROVIDERS FACE A BLEAK FUTURE WITHOUT RELIEF (2020). As the pandemic wore on, many schools remained closed, but child care providers worked to remain open or reopen because they recognized their importance in keeping America going and helping families and children succeed.3See Anya Kamenetz, What Parents Can Learn from Child Care Centers That Stayed Open During Lockdowns, NPR (June 24, 2020, 7:01 AM), [].

When combating these challenges, we must remember that the beginning years of a child’s life are the building blocks upon which they rely on to create a bright future. Without access to high-quality care, as defined by meeting the specific needs of each child, it is often more difficult for parents to go to work or further their own education. Access to ECE in America will help determine the success of future generations. It is imperative that we think outside the box and focus wholly on children by protecting parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, and prioritizing the future workforce of America. The time to work together for bipartisan childcare solutions that encompass program alignment across federal, state, and local governments is now.  We have no time to waste—parents are waiting, children are growing, and our nation is falling behind as a leader in education.

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Legal Constraints on Executive Power to Manage Agency Vacancies

Lauren Shapiro*


Throughout the history of the Republic, high-level government offices have often gone unfilled for periods of time.1 See Nina A. Mendelson, The Permissibility of Acting Officials: May the President Work Around Senate Confirmation?, 72 ADMIN. L. REV. 533, 578 (2020); see also Anne Joseph O’Connell, Actings, 120 COLUM. L. REV. 613, 638–41 (2020) (citing past research and statistical data on vacancy rates). Such vacancies occur for a variety of reasons—perhaps the President has failed to nominate a permanent officeholder, the Senate has stalled on a nominee’s confirmation vote, or the original confirmed officeholder has died, resigned, become sick, or been fired.2 See 5 U.S.C. § 3345(a) (specifying that the FVRA applies when covered Senate-confirmed officers “die. . ., resign. . ., or [are] otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of [their] office.”); see generally Ben Miller-Gootnick, Note, Boundaries of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, 56 HARV. J. ON LEGIS. 459 (2019) (contending that the FVRA does not apply to firings). Historically, regardless of the reason, extended vacancies for top positions requiring Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation (“PAS” positions) have been rare.3 See O’Connell, supra note 1, at 645, 648; see also Mendelson, supra note 1, at 582 (citing Thomas Berry, Is Matthew Whitaker’s Appointment Constitutional? An Examination of the Early Vacancies Acts, YALE J. ON REG.: NOTICE & COMMENT (2018), []) (“Berry elaborated further that periods of [acting] service [pre-1860], including for the ad interim appointments, generally were extremely short—on the order of days or weeks rather than months or years.”).

The Trump administration departed from this trend: it faced more vacancies for PAS positions—and filled them with longer-serving acting officials—than any prior administration for which data exists.4 See O’Connell, supra note 1, at 623, 643–57; see also ANNE JOSEPH O’CONNELL, ACTING AGENCY OFFICIALS AND DELEGATIONS OF AUTHORITY (2019), [] (“President Trump’s acting Secretaries have served longer, on average, than recent Administrations.”) [hereinafter O’CONNELL, ACTING AGENCY OFFICIALS]. Acting officials, who are not Senate-confirmed to the relevant position, occupied several high-level posts for years during the Trump administration.5 See BOB COHEN ET. AL, P’SHIP FOR PUB. SERV., THE REPLACEMENTS: WHY AND HOW “ACTING” OFFICIALS ARE MAKING SENATE CONFIRMATION OBSOLETE 7–8 (2020), []. Some positions, such as the State Department Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, remained perennially vacant.6Id.

Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (“FVRA”), extremely long tenures of acting officials such as these must eventually come to an end. Pursuant to the FVRA, when the permissible period for acting service expires, the PAS position again becomes vacant, and “only the head of [the] agency may perform any function or duty of [the] office.”75 U.S.C. § 3348(b)(2) (2004). If someone other than the head of the agency performs the functions and duties of the again-vacant office, the resulting actions will be rendered void ab initio.85 U.S.C. § 3348(d)(1) (2004).

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