Will the Trump administration honor federalism principles?

LaVarr WebbWhen new leadership takes over in Washington, D.C., I’m always interested to see if the president and Congress will try to restore a proper balance between the federal government and state governments.

I believe the centralization of power in the nation’s capital is a fundamental cause of federal dysfunction. I believe our country would be more effectively governed, with lower deficit spending and more efficiency, if the federal government stopped interfering in every aspect of our lives, devolving power on many domestic matters to state and local governments.

Unfortunately, the pattern has been that no matter whether Republicans or Democrats control Washington, the concentration of power increases at the federal level, with ever-higher levels of taxes, spending and regulation.

When Republicans are in control, they often pay lip service to balanced federalism, but then do very little to restore balance. Democrats barely acknowledge that states even have a key role in the federal system – unless it serves their purposes.

Plenty of hypocrisy exists on both sides regarding federalism. Democrats and liberals blast conservative state legislatures when they try to stand up to the federal government on environmental, public lands, and business regulation issues. But today Democrats are defending sanctuary cities, praising them as heroic for ignoring federal mandates.

Democrats are complaining about the possible loss of federal funds in sanctuary cities — but taking away federal money is precisely the tactic they have used for decades when states and local governments don’t follow federal requirements in education, environmental, and other regulations imposed on states.

Liberals become angry when conservative states appropriate money and hire lawyers to fight federal intrusion. But the very liberal California Legislature has now hired high-priced, prestigious lawyers to do battle with Trump administration policies.

Meanwhile, some (mostly liberal) states are indicating they would like to maintain a form of Obamacare as their healthcare system. A few Republicans are saying they should be allowed to do so. But Republican congressional leaders and some committee chairs are saying no. They’re following the Obama administration top-down approach that the federal government should dictate healthcare. Why not allow states to do what they want to do, as long as they’re not being subsidized by other states?

It seems it doesn’t matter whether conservatives or liberals are in charge of the federal government. The pattern has been that they can’t control themselves in the use of power. States get stepped on no matter who is in Washington.

In fairness, it’s probably too early to pass judgement on the Trump administration and the Republican Congress. They’re barely getting started.

But if they really cared about balanced federalism they would be convening high-level meetings with governors and local government leaders and saying, let’s figure out how we govern this country respecting the prerogatives of each level of government.

And doing away with a few federal regulations and easing up on public land and environmental mandates won’t balance the federal system. A future administration can easily reverse pro-federalism initiatives.

What is needed are some structural changes that empower states and give them tools to push back. For example, an amendment that allowed two-thirds of states, by resolution, to invalidate a federal law or regulation would give states a real tool.

Such a tool wouldn’t change anything immediately. It would be used sparingly and it would be very difficult to actually overturn a federal law or regulation. And it would be a tool liberals could use as well as conservatives. But it would provide a means for states to push back against federal encroachment, as was clearly intended by the Founders.

I will believe the Republican Congress really cares about balanced federalism when I see a strong congressional movement to enact structural changes to give states more clout in the federal system.