WASHINGTON — A standoff between the governor of Oklahoma and the Pentagon over a coronavirus vaccine mandate for troops has turned into a stormy test of federal power, as President Biden moves to require vaccinations for a broad swath of the American work force.
Oklahoma’s newly appointed adjutant general for the National Guard, Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Mancino, announced last week on behalf of Gov. Kevin Stitt that guardsmen in the state would not be required to get a Covid-19 vaccine. The policy defies a Pentagon directive issued in August that makes vaccination mandatory for all troops, including the National Guard, by deadlines set by each service branch.
“The order I issued came directly from the governor. That is the lawful order to the men and women of the Oklahoma National Guard,” General Mancino said in an interview, adding that he had been vaccinated.
Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that failure to follow “valid medical readiness requirements” could “jeopardize” the status of service members, who could face dismissal or other punishment.
The officials insist that Mr. Stitt has no legal standing, though experts on the obscure laws governing the National Guard disagree. They note that unless National Guard members are federally deployed, they are under the jurisdiction of the governor of their state and therefore not subject to federal mandates.
“Guard members can only serve one boss at a time,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.
The Pentagon is not without redress. It could deny funding to state units or impede the promotions of Guard members who refuse to be vaccinated. Officials said on Wednesday that Guard members who refused vaccination could also face dismissal, as with active-duty troops.
“Oklahoma may be able to take this step as a legal matter, but there are definitely things the federal government can do in response that might make it a painful Pyrrhic victory,” said Eugene R. Fidell, an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Law. “The governor and state adjutant general thus might find themselves commanding some very unhappy personnel.”
The Pentagon is bracing for other states to follow Oklahoma’s lead. None have so far, but many are believed to be closely watching the situation, which could become the subject of lawsuits. “This could be contagious,” Mr. Fidell said.
National Guard troops have been caught in the political cross hairs over the years, such as in 2018, when several governors said they would withhold or recall their troops from the border with Mexico when the Trump administration separated children from adults who had illegally crossed into the United States. In 1986, several governors balked at sending Guard troops for maneuvers in Honduras that President Ronald Reagan had ordered.
But these rare conflicts in the military have never centered on vaccine mandates, which have existed for decades.
The Oklahoma standoff, while limited in scope, shows the headaches Mr. Biden faces as he pushes a Jan. 4 deadline for large companies to mandate coronavirus vaccinations or start weekly testing of their workers. The new rule, which applies to companies with 100 or more employees, would cover about 84 million workers and is already facing fierce resistance.
Mr. Stitt is one of several Republican state officials who have been resisting Mr. Biden’s vaccine mandates covering federal employees and contractors.
Some governors who have been more resistant to mandates have declined to join Mr. Stitt.
“I took an oath, and I intend to do what I promised the country I would do,” Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Carden Jr., the head of the Georgia National Guard, told a local reporter last week. “It’s cut and dry for us.”
Spokesmen for the National Guard in North Dakota and Florida — whose governors oppose vaccine mandates — said they were following the Pentagon order, while officials in Texas were more vague.
“The decision whether or not to receive a vaccination is a personal matter each soldier and airman must weigh. The Texas National Guard provides the resources necessary for each service member to make informed decisions,” an unidentified spokesperson said in response to an email query. The official added that the state’s Guard members would be subject to a mandate only when they were serving in a federal status, suggesting that Texas could be following Oklahoma’s lead.
While a vast majority of active-duty troops have been vaccinated, the percentage of those in the National Guard has lagged averages for the civilian population. In Oklahoma, 89 percent of airmen in the Guard have been vaccinated, while only 40 percent of Army guardsmen have had shots.
General Mancino issued his memo a day after Mr. Stitt dismissed his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Michael C. Thompson, a proponent of vaccines. General Thompson told The New York Times that the governor offered no explanation and that his firing was “political.”
“There’s not another reason for it,” he said.
Source: NYT > U.S. > Politics