Federalism's Ups and Downs: It's Pretty Much Agreed That Devolution Has Wanted; and There Are Considerable Pressures for Centralization. What's Not Clear, Is Why

By Tubbesing, Carl | State Legislatures, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Federalism's Ups and Downs: It's Pretty Much Agreed That Devolution Has Wanted; and There Are Considerable Pressures for Centralization. What's Not Clear, Is Why


Tubbesing, Carl, State Legislatures


Cable TV Program Note

Debate on the Federalism Channel has intensified over erosion of state authority. In last night's program, Alexander Hamilton argued that one necessary consequence of the war on terrorism-or any war-is centralization of power with the national government. "Balderdash," retorted a panelist looking eerily like Franklin Roosevelt. "It's the economy, stupid. The federal government has to take charge when the economy falters." Benjamin Franklin argued that the trend toward weakening of state authority is systemic and was well under way before the terrorism attacks or the recession.

The Federalism Channel has gradually expanded its niche viewership with use of stand-ins for historical figures, state capitol "Jeopardy" and live auctions of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams bobble head dolls. Tonight's programming will be highlighted by a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the presidency of Millard Fillmore, the only president, according to '60's humorist Stan Freeberg, who was born with a clock in his stomach.

Which of our historical talking heads is right? What accounts for the recent slippage of the states in the federalism standings? Is it Alexander Hamilton, our founding fathers' staunchest advocate for a strong, national government? What about Franklin Roosevelt, who, by most accounts, had to overcome his own caution about centralizing power before launching the New Deal and shifting the federalism center of gravity toward Washington, D.C.? Or is it Benjamin Franklin, renowned early American curmudgeon and contrarian? Let's take a look at some recent history first, and then we'll look at our panelists' arguments.

Two more recent figures-Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich-are helpful in understanding current federalism history. Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. As Arkansas governor, he had been a leader in the National Governors' Association and a believer in state innovation and experimentation. Like many state legislators and governors during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Clinton bristled at the implied arrogance of one-size-fits-all federal solutions. And like other state officials, he railed against unfunded federal mandates and cost shifts from federal to state governments.

In his first months as president, Clinton met frequently with state legislators and governors and was sympathetic to their pleas about restoring balance in the federal system. In October 1993, the president issued an executive order that told federal agencies to stop imposing unfunded mandates on state and local governments. That action proved to be the first of several steps taken during the 1990s that freed states to craft their own solutions to policy challenges.

The next steps followed the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Congressman Newt Gingrich and other Republican strategists orchestrated a national campaign around the Contract with America, a public relations gem, that, among other things, promised to end federal unfunded mandates and to devolve power to state governments.

The combination of a Republican congressional majority committed to devolution, a New Democrat, former governor as president and the lobbying clout of NCSL and other state and local groups resulted in a series of new laws that dramatically shifted responsibilities to state governments.

This devolution litany included the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act, the welfare reform act, a major revision of the safe drinking water act, surface transportation legislation, a new children's health law, changes to Medicaid and protection of tobacco settlement funds. State legislatures assured their prominent role in devolution by securing language in several 1990s laws that guarantees legislatures the ability to appropriate federal block grant money.

Our three stand-in panelists, though, appear to accept the premise that devolution has waned-or, at least, that there are still considerable pressures for centralization. …

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