Monday, December 04, 2006

Who Is Serious About Federalism?

LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy Daily has a post that bears repeating in today’s edition under the heading Monday Musings: Federalism Needed on Agenda.

Republican Party leaders are doing a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching as they contemplate their defeat in November and try to figure out how to win in 2008. Lots of pundits are offering advice, focused mostly on moving to the center or returning to core conservative principles.

It’s disappointing to me that few people are talking about a return to a properly balanced federalist system as a means to deal with the knotty problems facing the nation. In a recent speech to Republican governors, outgoing Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman came close to endorsing proper federalism. The Washington Post reported that Mehlman said that as Republicans built up their Washington power base, “the center of gravity shifted away from the statehouses that had been the traditional laboratories for policy ideas. The result was a vacuum that delivered little of interest to voters, while devaluing the national Republican brand.”

The consolidation of power at the federal level has continued under Republican rule. The result, I believe, is a federal government that is trying to do far too much. The federal job description has become so bloated that it is impossible to execute properly.

We need to leave more responsibility and more resources at the state and local levels where government is more manageable and producing positive results is still possible. While states are not without their problems and some states perform better than others, we’d see more innovation and more real results to the country’s toughest problems if they were addressed at the state level rather than the federal level.

For the most part, states balance their budgets; they don’t engage in financial shenanigans, hiding the seriousness of their financial problems. By contrast, the federal government is hurtling toward financial disaster, taking all of us with it.

It’s true that we live in a complex world with commerce and technology not respecting state boundaries. But we can still follow the Internet model of central coordination and standard-setting, with local control. The Internet is successful because it is decentralized. More and more large companies are decentralizing their operations as they go global. Few successful entities these days operate from a command-and-control, highly bureaucratized, one-size-fits-all organizational structure.

Republicans and Democrats looking for new ideas, for ideas that work, ought to embrace proper federalism as a means to find solutions to problems in 50 laboratories of democracy, in addition to improving the nation’s fiscal health.

Wise words indeed. I agree with Webb that the power pendulum has swung too far toward the central government and away from the states. Yes, I know that we fought a war about whether to have a strong federal government, but that doesn’t mean that all issues regarding the appropriate level for exercise of governmental power are resolved for all matters. Webb makes good sense with his arguments.

Simplifying Mehlman’s corporate speak quoted above, we have a guy that has just lost his job explaining that the strategy he has largely supported of centralizing power in Washington was an abysmal failure. It was bad for the country, and the voters knew it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is not in our nature to take advice from a loser.

Still, many conservative pundits thought prior to the election that the only way the GOP was going to really remember its basic principles was for it to spend some time in the doghouse. They’ve got their wish. The cynical side of me, however, doesn’t think this will work out the way they wish, at least in the long run. The party out of power always talks a good game and puts up a good fight. It’s easy, because they don’t have to be held responsible for actually accomplishing anything. But get them back in power and they morph into the same thing over again.

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.


Unknown said...


The fact that we fought a war about whether to have a strong federal government should only indicate that there are some absolutes in this system which are dictated by the Federal government. The states should not treat those absolutes, such as abolishing slavery, like an a la carte menu. That being said, the war we fought was not a statement that everything fell under federal authority.

As for our natural reticence to take advice from a loser - perhaps Republicans should take a lesson from the Democrats. While this "loser" is advocating federalism as a solution to the party's problems, the Democrats are having what The Caucus is calling "a love-fest for Dean's 50 state strategy." I think we should all sit up and take note when the winners and the losers are all saying the same thing in hindsight.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Good points, David.

Jesse Harris said...

There's plenty of reason to be cynical about Republicans not living up to their supposed principles. Remember what the Rockefeller Republicans did in the 50s with a huge expansion of federal social programs? We had a repeat of it over the last 4 years.

There are some good Republican candidates and elected officials out there that truly subscribe to federalism, limited government, and the ability to self-govern. Sadly, they are often branded as extremists, not supported within their own party, and/or dictated to by party officials. The few exceptions (Ron Paul comes to mind) are allowed to exist as little more than trophy paleo-conservatives.

The problem with sticking to your guns on these issues of spending and law is that you're going to be branded a do-nothing malcontent by voting against the tide of government intrusion. Good men go to Washington only to learn the complex dance of getting re-elected or the pratfall of getting skewered in the next election.

Charles D said...

Webb has a lot of excellent points, however the pendulum can swing too far in both directions. Some problems cannot be solved effectively and efficiently at the state or local level, or will result in wide disparities between states.

The Republicans have too often imposed burdens on states then not provided the funding necessary to meet those burdens. They have federalized the wrong things, usually in an attempt to force an ideological agenda instead of solve a problem.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jesse, your points are well taken. The actual small government types are usually just rocks in the stream of expanded government, rushing by thinking that they are so noisome, backward, and non-progressive. The best most of them can hope for is to slow the speed of expansion.

DL, I heartily agree with you on unfunded mandates. Unable to stop the push for centralization, states rights folks have often used unfunded (or even funded but poorly designed) mandates to give some semblance of power to states. But instead of the states being in charge, this merely makes them slaves to the whims of the beltway crowd.

You are also correct that frequently the wrong programs have been pushed up to the feds or down to the states. Webb has frequently advocated placing government functions at the proper level. Some things should be federalized. Other things should not. Washington too frequently messes this up.