Today’s Utah Policy Daily includes an article by LaVarr Webb that echoes his regular calls for more federalism to solve problems with the federal government (scroll down to Monday Musings). Webb says that last week’s failure of the Senate’s immigration bill shows that Congress is “entirely inept” at solving the major issues facing our nation.
One of the major causes of the ineptness of the federal government, per Webb, is that the fed has simply grown too big and has its fingers in too many things. Webb says that “the founders never intended the federal government to grow as big, as pervasive or as expensive as it is today. They didn’t intend it to take over nearly every government program impacting every aspect of life as it has today.”
Webb assumes that the probable cause of our current situation is “congressional overreaching over many decades.” While that is certainly a factor, I wonder if he remembers the Civil War. We fought a war over the issue of a weak central government vs. a strong central government, and the strong side won. Webb refers to “sovereign states” in his thoughtful article. But we do not in fact have sovereign states. The entire premise of the Civil War was that no state was sovereign and had no right, therefore, to secede from the Union.
The outcome of the Civil War and subsequent legal determinations mean that all states are subdivisions of the U.S. and are not sovereign members of a confederacy. For this reason, the Supreme Court has held that constitutional provisions that apply to the federal government, such as the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, apply to state (and sub-state) governments as well.
Like it or not, we live in a country that has a strong central government.
But Webb is right that the federal government was intended “to be limited to a few specific things, delegated by the Constitution, and to do those few things well.” Everything else was to be left to the states. The central government has far overstepped the boundaries of its enumerated powers and a willing judicial branch has supported this expansion.
Decentralization results in a lack of uniformity. Even as I write this, the federal government is being lobbied to take over various state responsibilities in the name of uniformity and easing of burdens. Many will argue that decentralizing activities essentially leads to lack of uniformity, which means problems for citizens, especially in today’s mobile society where citizens move between states with regularity.
In another essay, however, Webb eloquently calls for moving each function of government to its most appropriate level. To deal with the messiness this would otherwise cause, Webb calls for mimicking computer networking. He writes, “Just as in a computer network, states would have to agree on standards and protocols to deal with complex interstate issues. But the motto ought to be “national standards, local control,” not top-down, bureaucratic dictates from a one-size-fits-all central government.”
Having a strong centralized government need not mean that the central government has to deal with every single issue first hand. Indeed, even a strong central government could function well (arguably better than it does today) by sticking to those activities enumerated to it in the Constitution, and by delegating all else to the states and their subdivisions.
The major drawback I see with Webb’s plan is that the setting of national standards while allowing local control would either create a mass of unfunded federal mandates for the states, or else would require a huge centralized collection with federal officials controlling the purse strings. States decry the former and some of the current programs that function according to the latter are rife with problems due to overregulation. Could federal officials prevent themselves from over regulating? Sorry, but I just can’t see it. It seems to be the nature of the beast.
In the end, part of me agrees with Webb’s cynical suggestion that a gridlocked Congress might be the best thing we can hope for at present. “At least they’re not making things worse, which is always a real danger. The country may be better off with a do-nothing Congress.” Maybe he’s right.