U.S. House Intergovernmental Task Force Delves Into Federalism Issues

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The dean of Yale Law School was among those who spoke to the recently launched panel as it met for the second time.

WASHINGTON — Experts on federalism presented ideas Thursday to lawmakers serving on a U.S. House intergovernmental affairs task force that was formed earlier this year.

Rethinking traditional definitions of federalism, the possibility of reviving an advisory commission on intergovernmental relations and the notion that government bureaucracy has become unwieldy at both the federal and state level were some of the issues discussed.

Those offering testimony included Heather Gerken, who is the dean of Yale Law School, Timothy Conlan, a professor of government at George Mason University in Virginia and Matthew Spalding, an associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Michigan.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi launched the task force in May. Thursday marked the second time the panel met.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, chairs the task force.

“This issue of federalism,” he said, “transcends lines, it transcends philosophical lines, it transcends political lines.”

Rethinking Federalism

Gerken told members of the task force that ideas about federalism have traditionally fallen into two camps.

In one camp are those who emphasize the importance of state power and the ability of states to regulate without federal interference. In the other: “New Deal nationalist” types who focus on power and norms at the national level and are often skeptical of state power.

But Gerken described this understanding of federalism as outdated.

“Today’s federalism represents a middle ground between the two camps,” she said.

If the federal government wants to impose regulations, Gerken said it typically has the latitude to do so. But states also influence national policy. On the issue of same-sex marriage for example, she noted state and local policies shifted before change occurred at the federal level.

So, in other words, modern federalism does not shield states from national norms, but instead employs states in helping to construct those norms, according Gerken. “States can’t block the federal government from invading their turf. They are also licensed to invade the federal terrain.”

Advisory Commission

Conlan noted in his remarks: “We have a particularly complex system of intergovernmental relations because we have 50 states, over 90,000 local governments, Indian tribes, territories.”

Against this backdrop, he added, is a system of federalism in the U.S. that at times involves cooperation, conflict and confusion.

In considering how to address this complexity, one approach, Conlan said, might focus on reducing the federal role in some areas, while concentrating it primarily in others that are national priorities. The difficulty, he said, is federal programs often have ardent supporters, and are underpinned by arguments about why they should exist.

Another approach, Conlan said, would be to strengthen intergovernmental consultation.

To help with this, he recommended resuscitating a body like the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which was established in 1959 and ended its activities in 1996.

The commission was designed as a bipartisan body of 26 members who could study problems, programs and other matters. Members included representatives of the White House, congressional lawmakers, governors, state legislators, mayors and county officials.

‘Bureaucratic Centralization’

The most fundamental change with America’s form of rule, according to Spalding, is the rise of “bureaucratic centralization.”

He argues this has roots in the Great Depression and the New Deal. And that today everything from financial restructuring to environmental regulation and health care reform is dealt with comprehensively, centrally and by a “national administrative apparatus.”

“Modern federalism looks to the states for the administration of government policy emanating from Washington,” Spalding said. “Nowadays states themselves are just as often as guilty of expanding and imposing bureaucratic rule as the federal government.”

“Federal overreach has gone hand-in-hand with state overreach,” he added. The question, Spalding said, is not simply the balance between federal and state government. “The proper question, seems to me, is what kind of federalism do we want?”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, DC.

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