Come the Devolution

One of the Republicans' many ideological coups has been their ability to cast important questions of federalism in wholly conservative terms. In the new Republican demonology, liberals are centralists, favoring Washington while resisting local decisions and initiatives. Conservatives offer a decentralist new paradigm, returning, in the immortal words of born-again decentralist Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, "power to the people."

Dole's appropriation of a 1960s new-left slogan unintentionally acknowledges the ambiguity of the decentralizing impulse. In the 1960s, community activists sought to empower local groups and individuals in the opposition to a corporatized, centralized warfare-welfare state. In the 1990s, the right uses the same power-to-the-people rhetoric to attack 60 years of liberal policies that have been anchored by federal laws, standards, and fiscal resources. The empty slogan, of course, avoids all the important questions of government: what power to what people, under what set of laws, institutions, and values?

Three things are noteworthy about this debate. First, a close look at the Dole-Gingrich brand of "devolution" reveals less a principled philosophy of federalism than a series of opportunistic forays, often contradictory. Second, the Democrats, after a few promising false starts, have fumbled a legitimate issue and allowed the Republicans to impose their own conception. And third, despite the big dose of hypocrisy in the Republican package, decentralism and community empowerment remain worthy goals for progressives. The issue is too important to simply cede to the right.




The Gingrich revolution would roll back both the social advances associated with the New Deal-Great Society and the role of national government as guarantor. Much of what is packaged as devolution is simply opportunism. If entitlements cannot be eliminated directly, their elimination can be disguised as a block grant. The block grant for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) over time would force state-level rationing of a program that once guaranteed income support for needy families, potentially shifting burdens to already overstrapped foster care and child welfare systems. Limited federal support for Medicaid would intensify rationing of health care. The school lunch block grant would effectively eliminate the entitlement to that program. Since the poor are not the most popular claimants for state aid, it adds up to a massive rollback of income support.

The right rails about unfunded mandates, but the Gingrich brand of devolution creates unfunded liabilities. States already in competition with each other to lower taxes to attract business will now be forced to slash programs for the poor and disadvantaged. This looming "race to the bottom" is not a function of the mean-spiritedness of states and localities. Rather, it stems from changes in federal-state relations that would create inexorable downward fiscal pressures on the safety net.

Often the right's preferred level of government is purely a matter of expediency. For example, Republicans complain about a federal requirement that San Diego build a sewage treatment plant-intrusive, micromanaging environmentalism, according to Gingrich, a means of protecting the ocean according to the EPA. California Governor Pete Wilson refuses to implement the federal motor-voter law because it is not paid for (and because it might register too many new voters). But neither Pete Wilson nor any other governor (or Republican congressman, for that matter) has complained about perhaps the most intrusive new unfunded mandate now being implemented nationwide: the requirement passed in the Bush administration for mandatory, repeated drug testing programs for all transportation and public safety employees, a program that will cost state and local governments billions of dollars on an ongoing basis, ostensibly because localities would not otherwise protect the public from drug-crazed bus drivers and police officers.

In the 1995 rewrite of the crime bill, the House Republicans demanded: Don't tell the locals how to fight crime. So they eliminated categorical crime prevention and police officer funding. But at the same time, they offered the states new prison money-but only if states strengthen their sentencing laws to keep felons in jail for 85 percent of their sentences, irrespective of local statutes, sentencing, and parole decisions. The Democrats were little better. The categorical crime prevention program was in fact a mess, only accessible by those capable of hustling grants from the Department of Justice. Clinton's defense of money earmarked for the thin blue line of police officers may have been good politics, winning support from chiefs and cops, but it is a trap for the locals, who are hard-pressed to turn down federal largess for cops on the street-and will be hard-pressed to lay those cops off when the federal money runs out, as it does very quickly in the Clinton police program.

A second closely related hypocrisy involves interest group politics. Powerful special interests seek centralized power via uniform federal standards if the locals go too far. For example, Republicans want to restrict product liability nationally because they have failed at the state level. Alternatively, the special interests seek local control when they don't like federal restrictions, such as federal lands policy in the west. Energy utilities readily move from state public utilities commissions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and back again, seeking their advantage irrespective of any principle of state or federal jurisdiction. This is less new-paradigm devolution than old-fashioned venue shopping.

Subscribe to The American Prospect


Over the years, conservative theorists here and in Europe have articulated thoughtful versions of devolution and "subsidiarity"-the idea that government action should be carried out at the lowest possible level that can perform it competently. But in the current Republican conception, amid the myriad hypocrisies and opportunisms, it is hard to find a principled core.

Two conservative theorists of devolution, William Eggers and John O'Leary of the Reason Foundation, extol the flexibility and antibureaucracy of localism in Revolution at the Roots, a sort of Reinventing Government of the right. The principles here, however, call for limitation on all government action through tax restrictions, and "transferring responsibility from government to individuals, families, and voluntary associations." Not only should the central government be transferred downward to local government, but local government should also do less and should have less money. This is less a theory of decentralized government than pure libertarianism.

James Pinkerton, a former Bush aide, claimed a conservative "new paradigm" of decentralization and empowerment-initially a group of examples in search of a theory such as self-management, ownership of public housing projects, and school vouchers. His latest book, subtitled The End of Big Government-and the New Paradigm Ahead, oddly includes not only medical savings accounts and school vouchers-but also a revival of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.

The ostensible historical and theoretical inevitability of devolution is also touted in the "Third Wave" of futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. In the new information society, information is so widely dispersed and decisions have to be made so continually that centralism is impossible and government is on perpetual overload. Just as corporations have decentralized their decisionmaking, just as mass markets have fragmented, just as diversifying subgroups of the population make increasingly diverse demands, so must government decentralize decisionmaking. Thus, devolution of the central government is an inevitable trend that makes government consistent with the new decentralized economy and society. The Tofflers are neither entirely wrong nor entirely conservative: They celebrate diversity, environmentalism, feminism, and civil rights. But on close examination, they would wish away all bureaucracy without any examination of the appropriate role of government, particularly the need to maintain a well-functioning infrastructure that keeps the society running.


In short, it is difficult to find any consistent concept of devolution either in the theorists or in the actions of the Republican Congress. Conservatives would overthrow the most local of regulatory decisions-land use law-by extending "takings" theory to many local regulatory actions. A recent Medicare reform proposal would allow doctors to form health plans that would be exempt from strict state financial accountability standards. The state responsibility to protect its citizens from defective products would be overridden by a weakened national product liability standard. The policy seems to follow the constituency: If ranchers on federal lands want local control but cable companies insist on local preemption, so be it. The Tenth Amendment-delegating powers to the states-should be in play on, for example, abortion, until a fifth antiabortion vote on the Supreme Court outlaws it entirely.

Like President Reagan's "New Federalism" proposals of the early 1980s, the Republican proposals devolve precisely the wrong programs in the wrong ways. Then, Democrats swallowed some funding cuts but blocked the dismantling of federal responsibility. This time around, the Democrats' response to devolution has been ineffectual and sometimes incoherent.




As a candidate for president, Bill Clinton brought a critical governor's eye to excessive federal micromanagement. The Democratic Leadership Council, likewise, has made decentralization an essential tenet of being a "new" Democrat. Budget director Alice Rivlin's most recent book, Reviving the American Dream: the Economy, the States and the Federal Government, written just before she joined the administration, advocated a wholesale devolution of major federal programs. Vice President Gore's National Performance Review calls federal-state relationships "fundamentally broken." And this administration has demonstrated a far greater willingness than previous ones to grant waivers to the states to permit greater innovation, experimentation, and flexibility. So what went wrong?

First, Gingrich, Dole, and company pursued a much more aggressive and populist-sounding version of decentralization. Pre-Gingrich, all of this was policy-wonk stuff: federalism, intergovernmental relations, unfunded mandates, and the like have long been yawners in the hierarchy of hot public policy issues-which, alas, is how the Clinton administration treated them. Gingrich's great achievement has been to transform a nuts-and-bolts discussion of how government should operate into grand ideology to whip the Democrats and dismantle the New Deal.

Second, the administration had many opportunities but failed to project any unifying vision of government. For example, the National Performance Review easily could have been cast as a decentralist program that breaks down unnecessary federal bureaucratic functions and devolves power to local decisionmakers. Instead, as deficit mania intensified, it has been promoted mainly as an attempt to save money. The administration's much-maligned health care plan, labeled big government incarnate, in fact gave much power and flexibility to the states and even regions to run their own programs-although few others than state-level activists knew it. In health and human services, where the administration has given states broad waivers to innovate, only insiders-public officials, policy advocates, and inhabitants of places like the National Conference of State Legislatures or the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations-have ever cared.

Further, a lot of this stuff is intrinsically of interest only to the interest groups and government functionaries who live and die by it. The difficulty of exciting the public about a principled and non- opportunistic version of devolution is partly a function of its numbing detail. In a federal system (yawn), every single program has its own set of intergovernmental issues. Every public policy area has an involved and evolved set of federal, state, and local relationships that have far more to do with institutional histories, the predilections of long-powerful congressional chairs, and lobbying groups with particular preferences than with any coherent federalist principles. Many state bureaucrats are actually happy to have federal restrictions, which offer an all-purpose excuse for failure to innovate.

It took incredible Republican packaging to place something as boring as "unfunded mandates" onto the front-burner of national policy, even as the legislation itself fails dismally to relieve localities of some of the more onerous and stupid of these actual mandates. Thus even the most astute commentators have missed the fact that Clinton potentially offers a smarter and more serious version of decentralization. Michael Kelly, writing in the New Yorker, understands why Gingrich would be proposing devolution, but is shocked that the Clinton administration would even halfheartedly take up this banner. Democrats came into office this time with a sensible view of devolution-but the issue got lost in the Democratic Party's general retreat.


Let's pause to recall why much of the post-1933 liberal agenda has necessarily increased the reach of the national government. Democrats in this century have relied on the federal government to secure broad gains for the majority of people. In the sweep of New Deal social insurance programs, its (partial) extension to health care in the 1960s, the triumph of civil rights over states' rights, and the need for national environmental protection, Democrats have rightly advanced the power of the federal government to provide the basic rights and protections of citizenship. For several generations, Democrats have fought against the ravages of an inhumane, anti-ecological marketplace and the perceived lack of concern by corrupt or inept state governments for their own citizenry. If devolution and decentralization means abandoning these advances, then the New Yorker is right to be shocked, and the Democrats are right to fight against these efforts.

In truth, since the New Deal the dominant mode of thought-governing paradigm, if you will-has been centralism of both a progressive and conservative nature. Liberal centralism describes the New Deal postwar consensus. Conservative centralists have long believed in a powerful military and an extensive domestic and international security and intelligence state.

Though it is sometimes forgotten, progressives have often fought to maintain, not eliminate, local regulatory powers and the design of programs to fit local needs. They have built an extensive set of community-based institutions-from Head Start to community development corporations to workplace committees on occupational safety and health-which began in opposition to the established bureaucratic order; and have envisioned human scale and participatory institutions.



Just as there are both conservative and liberal brands of centralism, there are both progressive and reactionary forms of decentralism. Since so much of the congressional program is simply ideological and is aimed at the poor, it is tempting to dismiss devolution as a smokescreen. Richard Reeves, for example, observes that the use of federal power in American history has meant progress over slavery, oppression, and economic backwardness. The Washington Monthly has derided "devolution chic" by collecting numerous examples of corruption and venality at the local level. The New York Times questions whether state legislatures, many of them part-time and burdened by term limits, can rise to the task of making intelligent decisions about programs.

But the irony remains: Much of the thrust of recent progressive movements was antibureaucratic, anticentralist, and focused on empowerment of community and individuals. The civil rights movement sought fundamental personal and community rights based on decentralized moral witness-but required the full power of the federal government to establish and enforce those rights.

One of the most significant policy and institutional contributions of the progressive movements of the 1960s has been the rise of community-based nonprofit agencies-public-private partnerships, if you will-as a key element in direct service delivery, in battered women's shelters, child care agencies, community development corporations, and community health clinics, among many diverse variations on the theme. The antiwar movement long called for shrinking the bureaucratic national security state and its dependent corporations. The women's movement is fundamentally about empowerment: The personal became political at the most individual and community level. The environmental movement developed the most visionary decentralist perspectives: think globally, act locally; small is beautiful; create "human scale" institutions and bio-regional governments.

The right does not own this issue. We need to sort through what the federal government does best while identifying where devolution can and should work. The following is only an outline of a much broader discussion and debate.

Rights. The first concern of any progressive like Reeves, who gets nervous about devolution, is civil rights and civil liberties. Guaranteed constitutional rights and civil liberties, like many other federal responsibilities, are simply not devolvable. As these rights become clarified by federal action or decisions-for example Miranda rights, abortion rights-they cannot be abrogated by localities.

This principle, however obvious, helps clarify the debate on unfunded mandates. If the constitutional right to an attorney is established, the fact that localities have to pay for public defenders is simply the cost that government must bear to guarantee the people their legal rights, not a federal mandate. Access for the disabled to public buildings and public transportation costs states and localities money; but since access and mobility for the disabled are legislated as a right of citizenship, not only public but private costs (disabled access to businesses) are simply the costs of serving all citizens.

But this argument goes only so far. Establishing a right to health care, for example, does not mean that local government can be mandated to provide it without financing. For the federal government to ensure rapid implementation of disability access, it should provide the funding. In general, the most effective and important intervention of the federal government is precisely what Gingrich is trying to destroy: federal financing.

Funding. The most critical programmatic function of the federal government is financing. The Social Security program is at once the most centralized and the most empowering program of all: The computer system and bureaucracy guarantee income without strings for millions of individuals, delivered to their doorstep. Supplemental Security Income empowers the disabled, blind, and very poor elderly with the ability to survive. The Medicare system permits millions of elderly to seek their own health care with (until now perhaps) substantial choice. So far, no one has suggested that the states take over income maintenance or medical care for the elderly for many good reasons, such as the fact of interstate personal mobility and the states' limited fiscal resources.

As Alice Rivlin has noted in her otherwise favorable treatment of devolution, devolving entitlement programs would place an unthinkable burden on the states, a burden that only the federal government is fiscally capable of carrying. Thus, entitlement programs that assure that poor children have income support, medical care, a home without abuse, and sufficient food must be federally financed. Seen this way, a simple child allowance program like that of most Western countries becomes a far more fair and efficient means of providing family support than the AFDC system, particularly one run by the states.

Federal financial power must necessarily extend to functions that the states will not or cannot undertake. Basic research, which is distributed to many locations, benefits no state or particular industry immediately but is arguably critical to long-term economic growth. A public broadcasting system, based on local stations that raise much of their own money, would have been impossible without federal financing. One can argue the legitimacy of many federal expenditures; but one cannot argue that the states can afford these broader expenditures.

Flexibility. The devolutionary aspect of federal financing should be local program flexibility. To oversimplify, the federal government must finance efforts to remedy problems; community efforts should receive every incentive to provide the solutions. The most effective programs are often those that come from the bottom up-the community development, job training, family service, and community clinic programs that fill the voids that the legislative process or the regulatory bureaucracy could not envision.

Where the federal government wants specific behavior or change, it should use incentives: In child support, for example, federal policy currently provides incentive payments to pay for the states and localities to improve collections, with limited program specifications on how the job gets done. (The program has encountered its greatest problems with federal specifications for computerization.) Such flexible programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund encourage localities to invest in environmental improvements with a minimum of regulatory oversight. Categorical requirements for program and service delivery, representing well-intentioned efforts to replicate solutions, so often break down in the implementation.

Variety. As a corollary, the federal government must get used to developing enforceable standards without dictating how to get there. It is a national standard that children have the right to be free from an abusive or seriously neglectful environment. But child abuse advocates complain that there are a range of frequently contradictory family reunification requirements combined with child protection requirements that put community agencies, child protective services, courts, and families at cross-purposes. If the states or the counties are not doing the job, there must be a federal right of action that could potentially dictate drastic and expensive solutions. But in many cases-such as misguided efforts to deny states money based on their formal child abuse statutes or technical violations of federal statute-the heavy federal hand does little good and adds nothing but cost and complexity.

Empowerment. Amid all the talk of individual empowerment, conservatives are attempting to preempt community empowerment. True devolution would set baseline standards for regulation but would permit stronger action at the local level. Many corporate lobbying efforts in environment and other regulatory issues attempt to preempt local action by setting national standards; any real concern for local democracy, which is given lip service in the current debate, would maintain the ability of localities to expand on national standards.

For example, energy utilities are currently seeking federal regulatory action to preempt the ability of municipalities to buy power on behalf of their own citizens when energy markets are restructured to be competitive; phone utilities have successfully used the Federal Communications Commission to overturn state efforts to protect privacy rights of their consumers from caller ID; the cable industry has successfully sought federal preemption from local regulation of local monopolies. The opportunities for state and community actions and innovations are many, but they are often stifled by limitations enacted at the behest of powerful interests.

Another aspect of community empowerment is one that began in the 1960s-the direct relationships between the community-based sector and federal funding. Many nonprofit community organizations were stimulated by the War on Poverty; assessments of community needs led to health clinics and many other programs that, when successful, have lasted. Devolving program funding has strengthened both the public sector and the community-based sector in responding to community needs.

What functions should be directly devolved? In her book budget director Alice Rivlin calls for the states to take charge of the "productivity agenda" such as education and skills training, child care, housing, infrastructure, and economic development. "The following programs would be devolved to the states or gradually wither away: elementary and secondary education, job training, economic and community development, housing, most highways and other transportation, social services, and some pollution control programs. . . . Citizens and organizations concerned about better housing, training, and education would have to lobby in their state capitals, not Washington."

Rivlin's case is strongest for devolving economic development functions, which also happen to be among the most pork-laden projects. In the absence of federal assistance and strings, competition among states will still be healthy over who has the best ports, highways, mass transit, and airports, the best job training, the lowest-cost energy, and the best quality of life.

Devolving "pork" means that many massive, costly, and environmentally destructive, measures (such as California's excessive water projects) would never be built if beneficiaries had to bear full cost. At the same time, other programs, such as housing and social services, need local variety but at least partial federal funding.

Pragmatism must still reign in an arena in which no strict set of principles will work. Head Start fits into no convenient typology of appropriate federal functions but has had strong support (until now) as an effective program. When Leon Panetta was asked if he does not trust the states to run the proposed revamped school lunch program, his response was, "It works." It is easy to attack distant federal bureaucrats and cite absurd anecdotes about inappropriate regulations and bureaucratic intervention; it all too rare to hear defenses of effective programs.


Ultimately, progressives have to reclaim democratic empowerment as a politics. For most progressives and conservatives alike, the substance is more important than the structure: Advocates for interests or ideology care more about what is done than at what level the decision is made. But for those not directly involved in the public policy process-that is, the voting public-the sense of alienation from government and lack of control is deeply felt.

Efforts to bring decisions and participation closer to local communities may be an integral part of restoring connection to the political process. Devolving huge liabilities for social problems to state and local government is a recipe for disaster. Empowering communities and funding the responsibilities they have been given might help restore a sense that democracy can function.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)