It’s Time for Governments to Try Federalism Again

Our toughest problems can’t be solved unless we learn to work together.
May 2018
Quite a few states are concerned about the Trump administration's trade policy, particularly the tariffs on steel and aluminum. (AP)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

I love small-town newspapers, in large part because they offer a unique local take on national issues. One of my favorites is the Park Record in Park City, Utah. (The town was once a silver mining center and a camp for union troops sent by Abraham Lincoln to make sure Mormons didn’t seize control of the area. Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains just east of Salt Lake City, it is now better known for fancy ski resorts, the Sundance Film Festival and liberal politics.)

From a recent front-page story in the Record, I learned that Utah’s House of Representatives had voted 58-14 to reject legislation that would have overturned Park City’s ban on plastic bags. When the state Senate approved the bill, city leaders complained that the state should not intervene in a local decision, reminding legislators how upset they are when the feds meddle in state matters. 

It worked. Park City is solidly green, and Utah definitely is not. Still, even conservative legislators who took a dim view of the plastic bag law voted against the bill to repeal it.

Most of the time, unfortunately, things don’t work that way. The Georgia Legislature recently punished Atlanta-based Delta Airlines because it terminated its discount for members of the National Rifle Association. Legislators stripped from a tax bill a provision to eliminate sales taxes on jet fuel, a break worth $40 million annually to Delta, the dominant airline at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport -- the nation’s largest airport with a $70 billion annual impact on the region. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms saw the legislature’s move as petty vindictiveness. “So much of what we do is with the corporate community,” she said, “including Delta.” The effort against Delta and Atlanta was led by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a proud NRA member who is favored to win the Republican nomination for governor this year.

As contentious as the state-local relationship can be, though, it’s not as dramatic as what often happens when things go awry between states and the feds. California is at the heart of that friction in a range of disputes, most of which will end up in court. Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in March that the EPA will fight the state over its tough restrictions on the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that can be emitted from automobile tailpipes. “California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt told Bloomberg News. The state “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”

Quite a few states, including some red ones, are concerned about the Trump administration’s trade policy, particularly the president’s goal of rewriting or perhaps discarding the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, our largest trading partners. That would have “huge negative consequences” for Michigan, according to the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder. The Brookings Institution estimates that Michigan relies on Canada and Mexico for more than 70 percent of its steel and aluminum products. These imports support the state’s automotive and metalworking clusters, which together employ 230,000 workers. 

All this is going on at a time when our procedures for handling intergovernmental conflict are in tatters, both in Congress and the states. And so far, there has been little apparent interest in reconstructing the cooperative federalism that existed just a few decades ago.

That could change. U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, is promoting the Restore the Partnership Act, which would establish a new commission in the vein of the old Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which was phased out 22 years ago. I’m dubious much will happen until after the midterm elections, but if there is a blue wave, the idea might get some traction next year.

What may hold more potential is the Task Force on Intergovernmental Affairs, created by House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. It is chaired by Utah Republican Rob Bishop, with six other Republican members and six Democrats. In its first year the panel held only three hearings, which hardly conveys a sense of urgency. But its advisory council includes representatives from all the “Big Seven” associations of state and local officials, plus the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan network of more than 850 people from government at all levels who have experience in dealing with federalism issues and possible solutions. For a half century, the group has tried to serve as a public intelligence bank to guide policy and management decisions.

If we are to make progress on challenges like climate change, infrastructure and immigration, we must improve intergovernmental cooperation. Doing that almost certainly requires taking steps to address our hyperpartisan culture and introducing reforms to our electoral system.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com