Balanced Federalism Discussion is Missing in National Debate

lavarr policy insightsSpeaker Paul Ryan and congressional Republicans deserve credit for trying to turn the national political debate to real public policy issues.

Ryan is trying to establish a solutions-based conservative national agenda called A Better Way to provide a platform for Donald Trump, should he want to use it, and to demonstrate that Republicans have realistic plans to solve America’s biggest problems.

Ryan and the Republicans are releasing a series of papers outlining their policy positions in significant detail. Topics covered include poverty, national security, the economy, the Constitution, health care and tax reform.

I applaud the effort. I like a lot of the proposals and it’s great to see some media coverage of substantive public policy instead of just the presidential horse race and the latest outrageous thing to come out of Trump’s mouth.

However, I believe an important topic has been ignored or overlooked. It is the proper balance that should exist between the federal government and state governments — balanced federalism. I firmly believe that the federal government is trying to do too much to solve America’s problems and it is ill-equipped to do so. That’s the cause of much dysfunction and gridlock that exist in Congress, and the failure of the federal government to solve pressing public policy issues. 

Even under the topic of the Constitution, the focus of A Better Way is on legislative/executive branch battles, not on restoring a proper balance between the federal government and state governments. Congressional Republicans want to limit federal agency authority, reduce the regulatory burden, strengthen congressional tools to monitor the executive branch, and reinforce the authority of Congress to control federal spending.

Those are all fine goals. But just as important is the federal-state relationship, which is ignored in A Better Way. It’s another indication that state leaders can’t really trust either Republicans or Democrats in Washington to work toward a proper balance. Certainly, neither Trump or Hillary Clinton is likely to care much about the proper roles of the federal and state levels of government. Political and government power will likely be further centralized in Washington under either of them.

This isn’t about right-wing political ideology, and it’s not simply about following proper constitutional principles. It’s all about making government work, solving problems, and serving citizens. State and local governments are by no means perfect. But most of them are balancing budgets and are dealing with problems today instead of ignoring them and putting future generations at risk.

Citizens trust local and state government far more than the federal government. They’re more willing to pay tax dollars to local and state governments than the federal government. Approval ratings of state and local governments are excellent in some states and good in most others. Approval ratings of Congress and the federal government are, at best, dismal.

Federal officials aren’t any smarter than state and local officials. The diversity and variety of public policy offered by different states and localities would be healthy, not something to be feared. Let liberal states be liberal. Let conservative states be conservative. Let’s see who performs best in caring for the needy, protecting the environment, providing excellent education, creating strong economies and providing good jobs. 

I said previously that this debate isn’t simply about following proper constitutional principles. But it is very interesting that the balanced system carefully created by the Founders clearly remains the best system of governance in our high-tech, networked age. In fact, it could probably work better today than ever before.

We clearly need a good, robust, national debate about balanced federalism. There are ways forward. We need some prominent champions.