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
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
OPPORTUNISM IN SEARCH OF IDEOLOGY
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
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.
HOW DEMOCRATS DROPPED THE BALL
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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