Devolve and Protect

Governmental power has been decentralizing for 20 years now. Some think that's over. They should think again.
December 2001
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
The Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Behind the united public front on the war against terrorism, there are fears in Washington and in the hinterland that devolution will be added to the list of casualties of September 11. It's easy to see why.

In the country's foreign and domestic response lies a potential strengthening of the federal role not seen since the Great Depression and World War II. The White House immediately set up its Office of Homeland Security for the purpose of organizing and coordinating strategy. Barely two months after the terrorist attacks, emergency spending had helped send the federal budget sliding toward deficit for first time since the mid-1990s.

So far, these actions appear to have strong public support. Opinion polls in the past month have shown more confidence in government to do what is right than anytime in the past 30 years. There are at least as many nervous citizens calling on the feds to do even more as there are second-guessers urging caution.

Is there any chance that such a dramatic reassertion of federal prerogatives could take place without disrupting the transfer of power from Washington to state and local governments, which has been picking up steam over the past two decades? Actually, yes. Devolution will continue. It just may not look quite like the version we've been experiencing in recent years.

Throughout American history, of course, national calamities have produced great periods of centralization. Before the Civil War, authors wrote of "the United States" in the plural. The war made "United States" a singular noun with power far more concentrated at the federal level than ever before.

The great battles of the first half of the 20th century--namely, the New Deal's approach to economic collapse and World War II's answer to a two-front conflict--had exactly the same effect. They tilted the axis of government toward Washington. Despite complaints about states' rights, both of these crises fortified national power at the expense of the states. Lyndon B. Johnson further strengthened that with his Great Society of the 1960s.

Then, however, with the Reagan administration in the early 1980s and continuing through the Clinton era--from the Contract with America to welfare reform--the United States has seen a genuine devolution revolution. It has gone too far now to be reversed. The real question to ask at this point is how September's events will alter the nature of the process.

Unlike the earlier crises that centralized federalism, this one all but requires some form of devolution. Government's reaction to the terrorist attacks isn't something that can be managed entirely from Washington.

Even if federal officials wanted to concentrate more power in Washington, the mundane realities of homeland defense would frustrate them. Federal officials may argue the need for increased airport security, but local governments operate most of the nation's airports, and they will continue to do so. The cold, wet noses of bomb-sniffing dogs will belong to local police forces.

When the FBI puts the nation on a high terrorist alert, it's local police officers who guard the bridges and water systems and nuclear power plants and football stadiums. It's state governments that deploy the National Guard. In order for the new security effort to work, there has to be a grassroots public-private partnership in pursuit of coherent national policy. That may not be devolution as Ronald Reagan envisioned it, but it's still devolution.

What we are likely to emerge with is a new federal-state-local relationship even more interconnected than in the past. The federal government will play the role of orchestra conductor, writing the tunes and coordinating the parts. State and local governments will play most of the instruments.

For the states and localities, this means accelerating changes they've been making in recent years, only doing it in a more coordinated fashion. The challenge for the federal government is to move away from its instinct to micromanage the front lines, and to shift toward honing its ability to set broader strategy and, most important, to improving its ability to coordinate action. The feds have for too long thought of themselves as both conductor and player. In their eagerness to play every part, they've often not gotten the conductor's role right.

But there's a bit of reassurance in this: The conductor's job is one that the federal government simply had to start doing better in any event if it wanted to make serious progress against the most difficult problems of the 21st century. Devolution based on partnership was becoming a necessity even before the terrorists struck. It's just more urgent now.

So asking about a return to centralism in the wake of September 11 amounts to asking the wrong question. The right question is how Washington can become a far more adept conductor of a new breed of collaborative federalism.