Gov. Gary Herbert published an op-ed in Politico Thursday arguing that a return to a “robust federalism” would reduce the impact of a dysfunctional federal government:
Federal shutdowns, like the one we are currently dealing with, aggravate me. This seemingly perennial game of chicken between federal leaders costs states like Utah, where I serve as governor, millions of dollars because we end up footing the bill to keep our national parks open—thus protecting our local tourist economies—and because we serve as a backstop for federal social programs administered through the states.
Shutdowns also reveal a disheartening failure of federal leaders to accomplish their most basic responsibility to pay their obligations. They represent a special kind of dysfunction that simply doesn’t happen at the state level. In statehouses across the country, Republicans and Democrats manage to work through disagreements, balance budgets and keep the lights on.
I don’t presume to suggest a way out of the current gridlock, but the increasing frequency of federal shutdowns—this is the third one in the past year— should tell us that the problem is deeper than a disagreement over immigration or health care or the debt ceiling. If we accept that federal shutdowns are likely to continue to occur, then we should consider long-term strategies to mitigate their scope and severity—including the return to a robust federalism that leaves more policymaking power to the states.
This isn’t a partisan suggestion. One year ago, I joined with a few other governors to meet then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to discuss various policy concerns. Among other topics, I emphasized the need to devolve power from Washington, D.C., to states, where government is more innovative and responsive. Mrs. Pelosi agreed, and even quoted Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous idea that states are the “laboratories of democracy.” Usually, I’m the one reciting that phrase to federal officials, so I was happy to experience the reverse.
While I’m confident that Speaker Pelosi and I might disagree about how to solve many of our country’s most pressing problems, I would hope she and other federal leaders can agree that more of our policy debates should happen at the state level, where solutions can be tailored to local populations’ unique needs, and where political accountability is clearer. I’m certainly not suggesting states take the lead in immigration or defense policy, but why do we presume the federal government should take the lead on health care, education, welfare and a host of other policies? Deferring to states isn’t merely a matter of constitutional fidelity: Letting states make policy results in better policy.
Most everyone agrees that keeping government closer to the people makes it more effective and responsive, and there are countless ways states are innovating based on the specific needs of their residents—often in ways that wouldn’t work if tried in a federal, one-size-fit-all approach.
Admittedly, states don’t always get it right, nor do I agree with every policy a state tries out in this way. But that doesn’t matter, because uniformity isn’t the goal. In a pluralistic society, the beauty of federalism is that it enables states to address the same problem in different ways. And when states mess up, we tend to learn quickly and fix it. If we don’t, neighboring states siphon off our businesses, residents and revenue. And our localized mistakes don’t imperil everyone else—“a single courageous state may … try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” as Justice Brandeis wrote.
I hope that our federal leaders find a way to compromise and end the current shutdown. But I also hope that we come away from this latest experience with the understanding that our federal government simply does too much. We’ll all be better off when we leave more to the states—those governments within our system that balance their budgets and keep their lights on, even when Washington doesn’t.