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.
Last week, Oklahoma’s newly appointed adjutant general for the National Guard, Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Mancino, announced on behalf of the governor, Kevin Stitt, that guardsmen in the state would not be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine, defying a Pentagon directive issued in August that makes vaccinations 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 Wednesday that a failure to follow “valid medical readiness requirements” could “jeopardize” the status of troops.
Officials claim that Mr. Stitt doesn’t have the legal standing necessary to waive the mandate. Experts on the Guard’s obscure laws disagree. They also note that National Guard members are not subject to federal mandates if they are not federally deployed. “Guard members can only serve one boss at a time,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the The National Guard Association of the United States
The Pentagon has its problems. It could block funding for state units or prevent Guard members from being promoted if they refuse to be vaccinated. Officials stated Wednesday that Guard members who refuse to get vaccinated 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 Fidell, an adjunct professor of law at the New York University Law School. “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. While no other states have followed Oklahoma’s lead, there are many who are keeping an eye on the situation, which could lead to lawsuits. “This could be contagious,” Mr. Fidell said.
Over the years, National Guard troops have been in political crosshairs. In 2018, several governors declared that they would withhold or recall their troops at the border with Mexico. This was after Trump’s administration separated children from adults who illegally entered the United States. In 1986, several governors refused to send Guard troops to Honduras for President Ronald Reagan’s orders.
These rare conflicts have not been centered around vaccine mandates which have been in place for decades.
While the standoff has been limited in scope, it highlights the problems Mr. Biden faces while pushing Jan. 4 deadline to large companies to start weekly coronavirus testing or mandate coronavirus vaccinations. The new rule, which would apply to businesses with 100 or more employees covers approximately 84 million workers and is already facing fierce opposition.
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 less supportive of mandates have declined to join Mr. Stitt.
“I took an oath, and I intend to do what I promised the country I would do,” General Thomas Carden, the head of the Georgia National Guard, told a local reporter last week. “It’s cut and dry for us.”
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Spokesmen for the Guards in North Dakota and Florida — two other states whose governors oppose vaccine mandates — said they were following the Pentagon order, while Texas officials 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.
Although the vast majority of active-duty troops have been vaccinated in recent years, the Guard has seen a drop in vaccination rates compared to the civilian population. Oklahoma’s Guard has vaccinated 89 percent of its members, while only 40% of Army guardsmen have received shots.
General Mancino issued the memo just a day after Mr. Stitt had dismissed Maj. Gen. Michael C. Thompson. The memo was written by General Mancino. 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: NY Times