Last week, Congressional Republicans wrote a new chapter in government reform, convening a meeting in Washington with 16 newly elected GOP governors. To some, the confab looked like just another photo-op celebrating the party’s historic gains in last month’s midterm elections.
But that view misses the meaning of this fresh phase in federalism: A more active partnership between Washington and the states makes sense at a number of levels and will help both Congress and governors better accomplish their policy and political goals.
Compared to the last four years, this renewed collaboration represents a different tone and direction. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow travelers believed states should take direction from Congress. Washington needed to “protect” citizens from misguided state decisions – actions that could jeopardize all of the good things Congress could lavish on voters. States, by the way, were also hamstrung with the financial burdens produced by this governmental generosity, wisdom and compassion. What a deal.
In Pelosi’s House, there wasn’t much room for dialogue or collaboration. States were told what to do, how to structure benefits, and who was eligible for programs. In essence, the message was: “We expect you to do this, so just figure it out.”
No more. Congressional Republicans reject such an approach for both practical and philosophical reasons. “Washington doesn’t have all the answers, and the best solutions usually come from outside of the Beltway,” Speaker-elect Boehner said last week. Republicans prefer solutions generated closer to the people. What works in Maine may not in Montana. To think otherwise is both politically arrogant and substantively dumb.
Boehner’s method requires dialogue not dictates, malleability not mandates.
While emphasis on partnership with governors is a break from the last four years, it’s not entirely new either.
Ronald Reagan used the phrase “new federalism” during the early 1980s as a way to describe his administration’s emphasis on devolving money, power, and influence out of Washington. Unfortunately he faced a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives with other ideas.
In the mid-1990s, after similar GOP gains in Congress and statehouses, the party also forged new partnerships with statehouse leaders. During those years, the Republican congressional majority, working closely with governors, such as George W. Bush of Texas, John Engler of Michigan, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, crafted a host of new innovative policies on issues including welfare, education reform and Medicaid – ideas that provided states with more flexibility, produced better solutions, and reacquainted Washington with the virtues of fiscal restraint.
With Republicans capturing the majority in the House, growing their numbers in the Senate, and expanding control to 29 state houses, the time is right to reprise experiments in federalism.
“For the last four years the attitude in Congress was, ‘we’re going to tell you what to do,’” a senior GOP leadership aide told me. “Boehner’s view is just the opposite. He’s asking the governors, ‘what kind of flexibility do you need to succeed?’”
This also means the era of big mandates is over. “We understand you can’t ask the states to do more with less and then tie their hands,” he explained.
But there’s another reason why the time is ripe for new approaches to federalism – Washington needs a budgetary diet. But fiscal restraint produces its own set of political challenges.
As a result, Republicans in Washington need allies to navigate these shoals. Governors can help by validating the wisdom of breathing new life into creative federalism.
Democrats in Washington will no doubt attack Republicans for harming children, impoverishing the elderly, or wrecking the environment as they attempt to shrink Washington’s size and reach. Expanding federal power is always justified under the guise of noble protection.
Governors can effectively challenge this rhetoric. Health care is just one example. Democrats in Washington will moan that efforts to repeal Obamacare are an example of austerity-crazed, politically motivated Republicans gone wild.
But many statehouse leaders see through these accusations and take a different view. They believe the new health care law is job killing and fiscally unsustainable. Repeal is a matter of budgetary and economic self-preservation, not ideology.
Moreover, governors saying they just can’t afford Obamacare have a lot more credibility with voters than spendthrift Democratic congressional leaders who argue the definition of compassion is to just spend more.
This is the season to renew the spirit of federalism. The motive and means to contract the federal Leviathan now exist. And it looks like Speaker-elect Boehner has a large number of allies in statehouses to do just that.