The Fractured State of Federalism

It's hard to tell who's in charge of what in American government these days.
September 2017
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, has told Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other leaders that he intends to work directly with states. (AP)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Two recent stories about climate change resonated with me in a particularly powerful way. The first was a CNN story on how coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels was nibbling away at Virginia’s tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, at the rate of 15 feet of lost shoreline a year. I have sailed by that beautiful island many times, so I paid attention. Since Tangier only measures 1.3 square miles in size, that level of erosion means all 450 inhabitants would have to abandon their homes within the next 50 years, if not sooner.

The mayor of Tangier, James “Ooker” Eskridge, made a direct appeal on TV to President Trump, whom island voters had supported with 87 percent of their votes in last year’s election. The mayor implored the president to do whatever he could to bail them out.

By chance, Trump saw the interview and called the mayor. “He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge told The Washington Post afterward. Trump reassured Eskridge that “your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.” The mayor actually agreed with Trump on that score, even though the Army Corps of Engineers had determined that the erosion required remedial action -- perhaps a sea wall around the island.

But the Trump budget for fiscal 2018 calls for eliminating funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay sea level program, as well as for the agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. State and local officials in both areas have strenuously objected and, so far, the funding remains intact. What the final decision will be, no one knows.

The second story that struck me was the news coverage of Jerry Brown’s trip to China, during which the California governor in effect spoke for the United States in a highly unusual one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The trip had been planned well in advance, but in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull out of the international Paris climate agreement, it took on a new meaning. The world’s two biggest polluters convened to discuss how they could best clean up their act, but instead of Trump, the United States was represented by the governor of its largest state.

Still, Brown spoke for a coalition far larger than California. He and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, a broad coalition of state and local governments, plus myriad private and nonprofit organizations. The alliance’s membership numbers are impressive: 13 U.S. states (with 10 more vowing adherence, though not officially joining), one territory, about 230 cities and counties, and 1,650 private entities -- all swearing allegiance to “America’s Pledge” to meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals set under the Paris climate agreement that Trump is repudiating.

Those two stories brought home to me the broad spectrum of issues government must address, and that the usual pattern prescribed by our federal system has been disrupted. Whether it be environmental and energy policy, health care, infrastructure, education, prescription drug pricing, or even foreign trade, it’s getting harder to discern which level of government is responsible for what.

That’s one reason for all the interest lately in governors. This summer’s meeting of the National Governors Association in Providence, R.I., had a distinct international flavor to it, mostly because foreign dignitaries from Mexico to Vietnam showed up to learn a little bit about where the power really lies in the U.S. these days, especially when it comes to trade. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the keynote address, marking the first time a foreign leader of his rank had done so. He reminded the governors that Canada is by far the largest U.S. trading partner.

Trudeau spoke to a room full of nervous Democratic and Republican governors, especially the ones who had signed on to the Medicaid expansion that was part of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Vice President Mike Pence showed up in Providence to push the unpopular Republican effort to repeal that law. It was as if Washington had just discovered that governors will have to manage the health-care system. It was a brief recognition. Congress continued to push forward with health reform proposals that the nation’s governors were less than thrilled with, generating a whole new level of uncertainty about the balance of power between the feds and the states in the first year of the Trump era.

This uncertainty was obvious in the Trump administration’s embarrassing attempt to require the states to hand over every bit of individual voting data they had to a federal election commission led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. More than 40 states quickly refused to comply.

 The bottom line is that we are suffering from a fractured federalism more corrosive than anything the political process has seen in a very long time.

Yet there are some glimmers of hope. Early this spring, the U.S. House formed the bipartisan Task Force on Intergovernmental Affairs to take a hard look at how the federal system is working. Its chairman, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, promises that it will avoid political and budgetary issues, concentrating instead on how policy can be crafted more effectively at the state and local level.

That seems like at least a tiny step in the right direction.

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