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Pioneer Editorial: Keep Guard control with governors

The nation's governors control the "militia" within their states' borders -- and they want to keep it that way.

Leaders of the National Governors Association sent letters Thursday to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and congressional leaders, urging them to pull provisions from pending legislation which would give the president more control over the states' National Guard during disasters.

"Provisions in both the House and Senate-passed bills would expand the president's authority during natural and manmade disasters and could encroach on our consti-tutional authority to protect the citizens of our states," says the letter, which is signed by NGA's chairwoman, Gov. Janet Napoli-tano of Arizona, a Democrat, and NGA's vice chairman, Minnesota's Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Last week's letter follows up on a letter earlier in August signed by 51 governors -- all the states plus Puerto Rico.

The measure is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, now in conference committee, and would let President Bush federalize the National Guard without governors' consent in the event of a "serious natural or manmade disaster, accident or catastrophe."

The need for such a move is understandable, arising in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where chaos ruled and needed help delayed. But given what role the Federal Emergency Management Agency played in the disaster, we aren't so sure concentrating such power at the federal level is such a good idea, either.

Governors have traditionally been commanders-in-chief of the National Guard, the state's militia, and know better how to deploy and use those forces. Federalizing them without consultation with governors frames the same basic argument we had more than 200 years ago when King George controlled his red-coated militia from thousands of miles away. We said never again, and fought a war to underscore our point.

"Each of these proposals [in House and Senate versions] represents a dramatic expansion of federal authority during natural disasters that could cause confusion in the command-and-control of the National Guard and interfere with states' ability to respond to natural disasters within their borders," says Napolitano and Pawlenty's letter.

As it is now, the president must get a governor's consent to federalize the troops domestically, except in cases of rebellion. It's a law that has worked since the Union was formed, and should remain that way.

In a separate issue, DFL gubernatorial candidate Becky Lourey has questioned when the president can federalize state forces for international use, as in times of war. While Lourey is taking an anti-war position, her claim that governors ought to be able to challenge "improper, overexten-ded use of state militia" has merit. Gov. Rudy Perpich tried to question that use in the late 1980s, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the president has absolute authority as commander-in-chief.

But governors ought to have a say in ensur-ing that a state's ability to maintain a force for domestic security isn't dangerously weak-ened by federalizing those forces and send-ing them abroad for unlimited tours of duty.