This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Blaming Congress for our nation’s political dysfunction is a little like blaming your parents for all your failings in life. Sure, they may have made some mistakes and bad decisions, but, ultimately, we have to face ourselves in the mirror every day in order to move forward.
The 115th Congress enacted 442 public laws — the most since the 110th Congress — on everything from a massive tax overhaul to addressing the opioid epidemic, school safety, the criminal justice system, national disaster recovery, and national security concerns. Contrary to popular belief, a majority of these bills were even bipartisan.
Yet, a strong majority of Americans disapprove of Congress’s performance. And, stunningly, only 3 percent say they trust that the government will do the right thing “all the time.” To be sure, Congress (and the federal government more broadly) has plenty to answer for. But perhaps what drives this widespread disapproval and distrust is less Congress’s track record, itself, and more our (often unspoken) assumption that the people and processes who should be fixing our political problems are those within the marbled walls of Congress. Congress could fix all our problems, this argument goes, if only its members weren’t such “swampy” politicians!
But the real problem is that we are asking Congress to do too much, whereas we should, in fact, be looking closer to home. Our national government was not designed to legislate all of our problems away.
America got its start as a confederation of states, and the states then created a new federal government. Determining the balance of power between the states and the new federal government — not just the separation between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches — was a question at the core of the Constitutional Convention and the period of ratification. This debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists ended in a compromise that created the Bill of Rights and the Tenth Amendment, which articulates the principle of federalism: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Two centuries later, we can still see how essential the Bill of Rights is in protecting our rights as individuals.
Unfortunately, along the way, we’ve seen the principle of federalism falsely interpreted as “states’ rights” and utilized for political advantage and morally repugnant purposes. Partly as a result of this history, the principle of federalism has fallen into disfavor, conjuring Senator John C. Calhoun’s perverted defense of the institution of slavery. In employing federalism today, we should always remember — and take care to articulate — that states themselves have no rights; only people have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as protected by the Constitution. Federalism doesn’t protect states’ rights so much as reserve certain governmental powers to the states.
The Framers didn’t imagine that a federal entity, much less a powerful president, could ever make America great. They recognized that what made America great were the citizens and local communities and governments they comprised, which are best-equipped to make many political decisions for themselves. By reserving power to the people through the states, America’s political system depended upon and encouraged something essential to self-government and human flourishing: voluntary community.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously remarked on this quality upon his visit to America in 1831. Even today, we can quantify this uniquely American trait by how we continue to lead the world in charitable giving. No other nation even comes close to the 2 percent of GDP that Americans continue to give every year.
Sadly, however, this core strength of America, the spirit of voluntary association, has grown weaker over time as we’ve outsourced more and more of our problems to Washington, D.C. As when a Walmart comes to a small town and pushes out the local grocery or hardware stores, civil institutions such as the family, charity, neighborhood, and church have been — and continue to be — edged out by the federal behemoth.
Take poverty alleviation as an example. The federal government spends about $800 billion a year on about 92 federal welfare programs. The number of people receiving food stamps has skyrocketed from 17 million to over 46 million people since 2000. At the same time, the problems of isolation, educational attainment, opioid addiction, and more, have all gotten worse in low-income communities.
Many of the programs created in Washington have produced a myriad of unforeseen repercussions. Talk to any local shelter or non-profit leader who works everyday with people to achieve both material and spiritual progress, and he or she will have stories about how government programs edged out systems of family and community support, known as “social capital.”
The deficits in social capital look different across the nation. The problems ailing Ohio or Michigan are vastly different from those in New York or California. So why do these states have to work within the same asset limits and many of the same eligibility criteria for their welfare programs? And why do we assume that a federal entity is best-positioned to meet the needs of these diverse communities in the first place? As Robert Nisbet pointed out in The Quest for Community, “it is very difficult to maintain the eminence of the small, local units when the loyalties and actions of individuals are consolidated increasingly in the great power units represented by the nation-states in the modern world.”
We can’t just blame the Swamp for this state of affairs. States often willingly give away their own authority and autonomy when they take federal grants or ask for federal assistance. In some states, such as Mississippi and Louisiana, more than 40 percent of state budgets come from federal dollars for Medicaid, transportation, and other federal-state “partnership” programs. These federal funds come with strings that tie up state budgets and bound what states can and cannot do with their programs.
Besides being what the Framers of the Constitution intended, federalism is well-suited to solving our political problems today. But reinvigorating federalism will require new ways of thinking about legislating at both the state and federal levels. A partial solution is to create oversight bodies in both state and federal executive offices to assess the impact that a new law or regulation would have on federalism.
When he was governor of Indiana, Vice President Pence created an office that could serve as an example for other states to follow. Indiana’s Office of State-Based Initiatives reviewed every federal grant’s impacts on the state, recommended to the governor ways to mitigate federal mandates and cut costs. The office was also tasked with informing Indiana’s Congressional delegation on ways to cut strings attached to federal funds.
Similarly, a position should be created in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review, publish, and inform the states and Congress about the costs associated with any new federal law or regulation that imposes mandates upon the states. Understanding the problems and the costs associated with consolidating legislative authority in D.C. is the first step towards solving our most pressing problems.
It may be easier — and in many cases even warranted — to take to Twitter or to call your member of Congress to complain about gridlock in Washington. But our problems won’t be solved until we stop asking Washington for help with everything and look first to our state governments and local communities.
Rachel Kopec Barkley is president of RK Barkley Consulting.