Federalism: Can't We All Just Get Along?

We used to have a forum for our various levels of government to consult with one another. There's a simple way to get that conversation going again.

Once a year, I pull out my worn paperback copy of the Federalist Papers and re-read selections to get ready to teach public management. It may seem a strange start for examining performance management or the powerful connection between transparency and accountability. But I don't see it that way.

Clearly, the Constitution expected us to avoid the royalist road of pre-revolutionary America. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argued mightily against the status quo of the Articles of Confederation. What we ended up with was a relatively simple document that has endured as a model for the world. Under it, the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states.

The Federalist Papers did not preach a fear of state powers. Rather it was fear of the nature of individuals within the states. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, "Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments. ..."

Unfortunately, this fear of individuals within states may be with us today, serving to undermine the need to repair the fabric of federalism that was carefully woven in the Constitution.

The Need for a Federalism Forum

States, acting on their own or through local governments, are primary implementers of federal policy. This is true in health care, transportation, education, the environment and other key areas. Despite this fact, states continually chafe under the banner of unfunded mandates, and the federal government often suspects the states of cost-shifting or other manipulative behavior.

Why does this dichotomy exist? I would suggest that it is due to the lack of a forum for federalism. While there are consultative mechanisms on specific topics or programs, there is no comprehensive means for overall discussions. The obvious precedent for such a forum is the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which was founded in 1959 and de-funded in 1996—a casualty of the efforts to balance the federal budget and the Contract with America.

The mission of ACIR was "to strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively." Whether it was effective or not, I will leave to the judgment of others. What is obvious to me is that its demise left a huge void.

A Stimulating Conversation

While implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it was necessary to build a modern version of ACIR on the fly. The stimulus program featured assistance to state and local governments as one of its primary purposes: "to stabilize State and local government budgets, in order to minimize and avoid reductions in essential services and counterproductive state and local tax increases."

An estimated $280 billion was to flow to and through the states. This meant that there had to be a close bond between the federal and state governments. President Obama and Vice President Biden recognized this at the outset and immediately moved on two fronts. First, the vice president began a series of regular conference calls with groups of governors that enabled him to listen to their concerns and share his determination for ARRA's successful implementation.

The second initiative was also directed by the vice president. Here, he worked with the National Governors Association to develop a network of state "Senior Responsible Officials" to serve as primary points of contact for the White House and federal agencies. This network featured face-to-face meetings, multiple conference calls and countless individual calls to identify and solve specific problems. It soon evolved into a set of close relationships among "Don from Florida," "Sally from Ohio," "Danny from OMB," and "Frank from the VP's office."

Building on Success

I believe a poll of governors and senior officials involved in recovery implementation would yield good marks for the network that was developed. The question before us is how to build on this success.

My proposal is simple. The president should talk with governors and state legislators to see if they are open to a broad dialogue under the leadership of the vice president. Everything should be on the table, from Medicaid to transportation to clean water. The purpose of the dialogue should be to determine if a permanent mechanism for discussion is needed and, if so, how to create it. I believe that the answer will be that there is a need, and I also believe that the political skill of the vice president and his counterparts in states can produce an important new way for federalism to flourish.

While there will not always be agreement, there will be dialogue about legislation, regulation, program implementation and other common issues. Certainly this will help temper some of the adversarial positioning that has come to be the norm.