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3 Keys to Getting the Federalism Conversation Going Again

The crippled response to COVID-19 is just one example of why we need to revive our ability to sort out the roles of the federal government and the states.

The mega-hit musical "Hamilton" celebrates the strengths of federalism in the hit song, "The Room Where It Happens." (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda accomplished many seemingly impossible feats with "Hamilton." A rap/hip-hop musical about America's least known Founding Father that became one of Broadway's greatest hits. A videocast that drew 2.7 million viewers around the Fourth of July — more than had ever seen it live onstage. And perhaps the most amazing feat of all: One of the show's biggest songs, "The Room Where It Happens," is about federalism — how to balance power between the national government and the states.

As an avalanche of policy crises, from health care to infrastructure, make clear, the issues of federalism are everywhere around us. But as a couple of decades of policy struggles have also made clear, we've become almost pathologically incapable of talking about them, let alone finding fresh solutions.

I've written previously in this space about how the once-storied partnership between the federal government and the states is no more and how the forum that used to exist to build intergovernmental bridges, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), has faded away with little hope of resuscitation. The national conversation — one as searing as the one that Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton have in that great song from the show — is one we desperately need again but struggle to have. It's as if the conversation has been locked away in a basement somewhere in Washington, and few are in the room where it's happening.

Raise the issue of "federalism," and the reaction of most people is a yawn and a memory of a grade-school civics class they found hopelessly boring. But give me 30 seconds, and I'll give you an argument about why the nation's struggle to bring COVID-19 under control is rooted in our inability to sort out the functions of federalism. I suspect a lot of citizens' ears would perk up. That's a story that plays out across virtually every domestic policy issue that matters.

There are, I think, three keys to opening the lock on that basement door. The first key is language: creating the basic information structure to make debate possible and action effective. The inescapable reality of the coronavirus outbreak is that the American response has been crippled from the very beginning by our inability to figure out what's going on. In fact, we don't even have a common way of talking about a "case" or a "test," and in some states the most basic measures have shifted over the course of the pandemic.

Government has been so disorganized that the best single source of information about the virus has come not from a public-sector source but from a university initiative, the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracking project, which in turn has helped inform the reporting and data displays in national media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. If it's remotely the case that we are what we measure, then we aren't much when it comes to COVID-19.

One of the most treasured assets that the late, great ACIR brought to the federalism debate was its comprehensive data compendium, "Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism." After the ACIR faded away, a small band of federalism fans has been keeping a version of the old data book alive, now online. It's a wonderful contribution, but it's also a reminder of what that annual ACIR treasure once supplied. What are we missing most? A shared language to chart our discussions about the richly important issues of federalism.

The second key is creating a forum where we can explore the issues that matter. As we have discovered during COVID-19, not only were each of the governors standing alone in charting a strategy, but there also simply wasn't any forum for figuring out what a sensible strategy for the states ought to be. Some states took tentative but not very successful steps toward establishing regional compacts, but the basic fact is that our response to the virus was crippled not only by the lack of a national strategy but also by the fact that there wasn't a place to talk about what the strategy ought to be.

We badly need a forum not only for putting the issues of federalism on the agenda but also for exploring their implications. Miranda suggests a tactic: Don't be pedantic, but frame the questions as inescapable and lively puzzles. Focus on issues that people care about, instead of the underlying principles that are hard to galvanize attention around. Raise the flag of "federalism" and we're likely to be met with a collective yawn. But shift to a debate about how to tackle big problems, and we'd have a lot more interest.

Although it would be wonderful to once again convene great thinkers around a physical table, the old ACIR had a harder and harder time gathering its members. But that was before the Internet. E-connections make it possible not only to stage virtual forums but also to create online clearinghouses for information like Federalism.US, with the potential for even wider debate than the old ACIR could muster. We need a virtual space to talk about these things.

The third key is investing in intellectual capital to shape the debate. It's hard to imagine a time when these intergovernmental issues were so hot that a president (in this case, Eisenhower) felt the need to appoint the blue-ribbon commission whose work led to the creation of the ACIR. Launching such a high-level effort is probably beyond our reach today, but there's a host of issues that need a deep dive.

Why, for example, has America's response to COVID-19 been so poor, especially in comparison with countries like Canada and Germany that also have federal systems? Given our nation's enormous transportation bottlenecks, especially in rail and port systems, as well as the future of urban mass-transit systems, how should we tackle the surface transportation legislation up for renewal in 2021? And does it make sense to hang so much of the nation's health-care policy on the decisions of 50 different states, with all the inequalities loaded on the backs of the poor? These are just a few of the huge issues that deserve a searching national debate.

These three keys — language, forum and intellectual capital — are mighty big steps. But the good news is that taking the big leaps, or at least nudging the process along with a few smaller steps, wouldn't be that tough or expensive. There is a host of organizations that would be eager to lead the charge if they had funding; my column on the demise of the ACIR flooded my inbox with messages from intergovernmental players looking for ways to revive it in some form. And there are lots of foundations spending millions on trying to advance big policies, from reducing poverty to improving health care and education, and for them a relatively small investment in nudging their goals to success would pay off handsomely. There is a deal to be made here — and a lot of us would want to be in the room where it happens.

This is something all of the Founding Fathers who play such a big role in "Hamilton" would gladly embrace. And I can easily imagine that one of the Founding Fathers who didn't make it into the cast — Benjamin Franklin, with his instincts for data, debate and big ideas — would be eager to lead the way.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Donald F. Kettl is a professor emeritus and the former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @DonKettl.
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