Devolution Chic: Why Sending Power to the States Could Make a Monkey out of Uncle Sam

By Cook, Gareth G. | The Washington Monthly, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Devolution Chic: Why Sending Power to the States Could Make a Monkey out of Uncle Sam


Cook, Gareth G., The Washington Monthly


Newt Gingrich knows that every good revolution demands a new vocabulary. Sometimes he prefers to toss off futurisms like "the Third Wave" or "empowered citizens of the information age." Other times he favors the archaic - phrases with an old world flair like "American civilization," "the Republic," or, his favorite, the "Contract With America."

But save high honors for a word that will send a giddy shiver up any Newtnik's spine: "devolution." To the uninitiated, this word may conjure images of man returning to an ape-like state. But it's not the state of nature that the Speaker wants to alter radically, it's the state of the Union.

The problem with Uncle Sam, Gingrich says, is that he has gained too much weight; he has become clumsy and out-of-touch. The federal government, Gingrich argues, can't solve society's mounting problems. The solution: Devolve authority and tax dollars back to the 50 states - the "laboratories of democracy," as Louis Brandeis famously called them - and even further down, to counties and cities.

Gingrich is not the only one talking about a devolution. This new localism, more than any other ideological tenet or policy prescription, is the core of the modem Republican agenda. Devolution is the theme that runs through nearly all of the Republican's high-profile domestic initiatives, including crime policy, poverty programs, and deregulation. Whether it's cops on the street, environmental protection, or school lunches for poor kids, the Republican solution is to devolve it.

Now legislatures from 20 states are considering measures to demand devolution at a "conference of states" this summer in Chicago, the first formal meeting of the states since the Constitutional Congress in 1787. And even President Clinton is paying lip service to the new devolution chic.

There's no denying the allure of localism. Democracy's laboratories can offer efficient, even brilliant, solutions to problems that confound Washington: Oregon, Hawaii, and Rochester, New York have all led the way in health reform. So, at a time when America yearns for a return to community, why not let local governments take charge? Aren't local governments leaner, better-managed and, most important, closer to the people? For 30 years, "a mighty river [of money and responsibility] has flowed in the direction of Washington, D.C.," says Lamar Alexander, the Republican who has made devolution the core of his presidential bid. "This river ... should instead flow toward our families, schools, communities, and states."

But devolution is not the quick fix it might seem. Set aside, for the moment, the disturbing images that "states' rights" conjure, images of Alabama police beating on civil rights marchers. Set aside, too, the beguiling talk of "community" and the heady philosophizing that inevitably turns to The Federalist Papers.

At its heart, the devolution solution is only as good as the thousands of state, county, and city governments upon which it would rely. And devolutionists' idyllic view of the localities - lean, well-managed, and close to the people - is far from the reality.

Getting Down

Essential to devolution's appeal is the belief that it will be an antidote to big government. "Top-down mainframe-type government doesn't work," says Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah. "People want more decisions being made in their hometown and in their state capital than in Washington. And they want less government, and this is the way to get it."

But if Republicans are worried about bloated bureaucracies and inept, arrogant stewards of taxpayer money, they're looking in the wrong place. Between 1970 and 1992, the number of federal civilian employees only grew from three million to 3.1 million - actually declining as a percentage of the U.S. population. The ranks of state government employees, meanwhile, grew 20 times faster - from 2.8 million to 4.6 million, an increase of 64 percent. And the number of local government employees recently hit 11. …

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