Federalism Is Good for You

By Nathan, Richard P. | Policy & Practice, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Federalism Is Good for You


Nathan, Richard P., Policy & Practice


No matter who wins the presidential election, state and local governments will be crucial actors in human services. While policy and politics in Washington are dominated by foreign affairs, we're fortunate to have a vibrant federal system that allows continued debate and action on domestic issues while leaders in Washington are otherwise preoccupied.

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Three set of facts highlight the critical state-local role:

1) According to the Census Bureau, there are 87,525 state and local governments. They deliver and supervise almost all domestic public services.

2) Sixteen million people work for states and localities. Including workers employed by nonprofit organizations that provide government-funded services, the total represents one of every six workers in America.

3) The third set of facts relates to health spending. We have to take a hard look at controlling costs, highlighting prevention, and streamlining service systems. Many states are doing this now while Washington fiddles.

No one can presume to understand the domestic public sector unless they know facts like these and they understand American federalism.

Going back in U.S. history, government's role was limited in the 19th century. The dominant concept was dual federalism. This involved splitting power and responsibilities between the national government and states. The Constitution mentions the national government and state government, but nary a mention of local governments.

In the 20th century, the lines between federal and state responsibilities began to blur. Theories and practice of federalism moved from dual federalism to a dynamic concept that portrayed federalism as a marble cake with "an inseparable mixture of different-colored ingredients." Some experts saw the state role weakening.

But not everyone shared this view. I don't. Nelson Rockefeller said at Harvard University in 1962:

"The essential truth is that-today more than ever-the preservation of states' rights depends on the exercise of states' responsibilities. We stand, in fact, upon the threshold of a new test of leadership at the state level. For-so great and urgent are the demands of national defense and foreign policy upon all resources of the national government-that, now as never in our history, state governments are challenged to face and meet the pressing domestic concerns of our society."

Indeed, state governments play a strong and often leading role in meeting domestic public-sector needs. …

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