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Federalism, Then and Now

January 13, 2015

By Roger Pilon

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995, a perplexed Governor Ben Nelson remarked, “When I was elected governor in 1990 and prepared my first budget, I honestly wondered if I was actually elected governor or just branch manager of the state of Nebraska for the federal government.” He could have been speaking for any governor. Yet during the Senate’s Obamacare machinations in 2009, then Senator Ben Nelson cast the crucial 60th vote for cloture after negotiating the infamous “Cornhusker Kickback”—“free” money for Nebraska, strings attached.

There was a time in America when the federal government focused mainly on national concerns, the states on state and local matters, like the health and welfare of their citizens. That division of powers, the Constitution’s federalism, was never exact, of course, and it shifted over time, but it remained largely intact for a century and a half. During the New Deal, however, it was upended. Today, under what’s called “cooperative federalism,” the federal government’s tentacles reach into almost every area of life, areas once thought the exclusive domain of state and local governments—or of no governments at all. And the result, as former Senator James L. Buckley writes in his new book, Saving Congress From Itself, is “runaway spending that threatens to bankrupt us and a Congress that appears unable to deal with long-term problems of any consequence.”

Focusing only on federal programs that offer funds to states and localities to be used as Washington dictates, which have grown from $24.1 billion in 1970 to an estimated $640.8 billion in 2015, Senator Buckley draws on his own Senate experience in the 1970s plus a cascading body of subsequent evidence to catalogue the vast array of costs those programs impose on our very system of government. Before judging this as entirely Washington’s fault, however, we would do well to consult a dense 2012 tome by Professor Michael Greve, The Upside-Down Constitution; it turns out that the demise of federalism is more complicated than it seems, and the states themselves are far from blameless...

Read the full article at the Cato Institute: Federalism, Then and Now

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