The New, New, New, New Federalism

Bush embraces the most convenient principle. 

President Bush, you’ll be thrilled to hear, recently committed his administration to a bold initiative. He calls it the “New Federalism.” This is not to be confused with the “New Federalism” (Newt Gingrich, 1995), or the “New Federalism” (Ronald Reagan, 1981), or the “New Federalism” (Richard Nixon, early ‘70s).

Bush’s New Federalism is supposed to be different. This time, it’s personal. Bush, after all, is a former governor. He served Texas at a time when state governments were lionized. As governor, he was a fervent federalist, hectoring the feds to stop butting into local issues and let Texas be Texas.

Bush has stocked his Cabinet with three former governors (Tommy Thompson, Christie Whitman, John Ashcroft) and four other former state or local officials (Gale Norton, Mel Martinez, Ann Veneman, Norman Mineta). And he created a White House federalism task force that will advise him in August about how the administration can return more power to the states—or, as federalists like to call them, “laboratories of democracy.” (Pause for a question: I’m confused. Doesn’t “federalism” today mean the opposite of what it used to mean? Answer: Yes! Click to clear this up.)

The New, New, New, New Federalism will likely meet the same fate as the other New Federalisms. It will flower briefly—a few federal programs will be handed off to the states—then the federal government will slowly add mandates and increase its authority. Federalism, which has a whiff of mom and apple pie to it (who doesn’t favor local control?), is one of the convenient principles of our era. Politicians believe passionately in federalism—except when it comes to any issue they care about.

The Bush administration is already demonstrating fidelity to this law. Every steadfast federalist knows that state and local governments should control public education and that the federal government should quit meddling. (This is why New Federalists—Gingrich-era—sought to dismantle the Department of Education.) As governor, Bush thought that the feds had no role in reforming Texas schools. But a president can’t claim education is in crisis and then do nothing about it. Bush made national education reform his top priority and pushed a bill through Congress mandating states to conduct annual tests. (His sop to the states: They get to design their own tests.) “Bush surrendered to the traditional orthodoxy,” says Michael Greve, a federalist scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The administration has jettisoned federalist principles on several other occasions. Bush’s major crime initiative is federalizing more gun crimes and hiring new prosecutors to bring gun cases to federal court. On abortion, Bush has promised to support and sign a national ban on partial-birth abortion. The Bush tax bill has enraged governors with a provision that lets the federal government grab $36 billion in state estate tax revenues. Bush is supporting a patients’ rights bill that would permit patients to sue insurers only in federal court; the Democratic alternative would allow patients to litigate in state court.

Bush has a credible argument in each case, but it doesn’t jibe with the New Federalism. Education, he says, is a national priority and hence needs a federal push. Regular testing improved Texas schools, so other states must try it. Federal prosecution of gun crimes has proved effective in pilot programs and will work better than new gun laws. Partial-birth abortion is essentially murder and must be stopped anywhere it occurs. Allowing patients to sue in state courts will create a tort nightmare in which insurers get hammered in states with unfriendly juries and no punitive-damages caps. Bush sincerely believes in state autonomy—but not as much as he believes in the universal value of his education reforms, or the evil of abortion, or the villainy of state trial lawyers. That is: Bush believes in federalism, but not as much as he believes in himself.

Not everything Bush has done has run counter to federalism. He refused to cap electricity prices in California, for example, telling the state it had to solve its own energy crisis. (This is federalism, but it also happens to be good politics. California is a Democratic state: It costs Bush no votes to flip it the bird. This was a case where federalism was an expedient mask for a political decision.) Looming issues such as Internet taxation and Medicaid reform may also prompt federalist decisions by Bush. He may well try to hand off Medicaid authority to the states, probably because he does not know what else to do with it. You can bet that if he had a Texas model for Medicaid reform—as he did for education—he would attempt to mandate it nationwide.

The most important reason federalism can never be much more than tactics in a Bush administration—or in any presidency—is structural. (There is also an unexpected, corporate reason why the latest New Federalism may fail. Click to read about it.) The structural reason is that political power maximizes itself. Republicans spent the eight years of Clinton touting governors and demanding more state independence not just because they believe in federalism. They mostly did it because Democrats controlled the White House, and the GOP controlled the majority of governorships. So it made political (and ideological) sense for Republicans to push state welfare experiments, an end to unfunded mandates, and other federalist pet ideas.

But while state capitals are fine, they can’t substitute for the trillion-dollar charms of Washington, D.C. Republicans understandably lusted for national power. The much-touted governors loved their work in the states so much that they begged for jobs inside the Beltway. (Besides the three governors who landed in the Cabinet, Govs. Mark Racicot, Frank Keating, and Tom Ridge, among others, hoped for top administration jobs.)

Once Bush took to the White House, he started using the power of his office. Governors exploit state power: That’s their job. Presidents exploit federal power: That is theirs. If Bush honestly didn’t think the federal government should act, why would he have applied for the job of president? You don’t run for office to do nothing. Doing a little as president—simply to obey an airy principle like federalism—is not nearly as appealing as doing a lot.