Balanced federalism continues to be ignored as part of the nation’s problem-solving agenda

A number of years ago, during the Obama administration, I wrote a column questioning why the nation’s leaders didn’t even discuss federalism as part of the solution to big domestic problems facing the country.

At the time, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was sort of a policy wonk, was developing a series of position papers outlining policy positions to show Republicans had realistic plans to address national challenges.

Republicans called their political manifesto “A Better Way”. Topics covered include poverty, national security, the economy, the Constitution, health care, tax reform and other issues.

However, the policy positions didn’t suggest that some issues facing the country could be better handled at the state level instead of the federal level. A Better Way focused on how the federal government should address challenges. It ignored the proper balance that should exist between the federal government and state governments.

If that oversight was a problem six years ago, it’s even a greater omission today. Cconsider the immense expansion of the federal government resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Biden administration’s already enacted and pending proposals expanding entitlements and extending social benefits into nearly every aspect of life — not just for low-income people, but for the middle class.

Conservatives are denouncing and opposing many of the administration’s initiatives, but hardly anyone is doing so on the principle of 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. 

During the Trump years, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they took many conservative positions. But there was no talk at all about the federal-state relationship and the need to devolve more authority and funding to the state level.

Clearly, state leaders can’t trust either Republicans or Democrats in Washington to work toward a proper balance. Certainly, neither Republican or Democratic presidents care much about the proper roles of the federal and state levels of government. Political and government power continue to be centralized in Washington, no matter the party in power. 

This isn’t about ultra-conservative 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 policies offered by different states and localities is 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 as a solution to many of the nation’s problems.