Federalism's Phony Rebirth

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Federalism's Phony Rebirth


"Does Federalism Have a Future?" by Pietro S. Nivola, in The Public Interest (Winter 2001), 1112 16th St., N.W., Ste. 530, Washington, D.C. 20036.

"WE WIN," exulted the conservative Weekly Standard after President Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that the era of big government was over.

Soon thereafter came welfare reform, and talk of further devolution of power to the states grew louder. On education reform and other major issues, states seemed to be taking the lead. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in several decisions, seemed to be trying to shore up state prerogatives.

But the supposed shift of power to the states is largely an illusion, contends Nivola, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Though devolution appeared to prevail in welfare and other areas, Nivola points out, Congress and federal regulators frequently have preempted state authority with new prescriptions and prohibitions. Congress intervened, for example, in enforcement of child support laws, eligibility of legal aliens for public assistance, and state taxation of Internet commerce. Federal grants-in-aid to the states often acquire new strings after the states undertake the programs, Nivola observes. "And typically, federal rules remain firmly in place even if congressional appropriations fall far short of authorizations. The local provision of special education for students with disabilities, for instance, is essentially governed by federal law, even though Congress has never appropriated anything near its authorized share of this $43 billion-a-year mandate.

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