What's Old is New Again
By John Mountjoy, CSG Director of Policy, Research & Strategic Initiatives
It’s easy for today’s state leaders to be lured into thinking that the state-federal relationship is at its lowest point ever—beyond repair due to unfunded and underfunded mandates, seemingly capricious regulations and infinite bureaucracy—and that no darker days have occurred.
But what state leaders must understand, placing it into perspective, is that these sentiments are not new and the concerns shared by many state leaders today echo those voiced by CSG’s founders in the early 1930s and throughout the past 80 years of American democracy.
Writing in 1959 for CSG, noted political scientist and frequent CSG contributor Frederick L. Zimmerman said, “A considerable portion of the history of the American government is the story of the problem of intergovernmental relations—both as among its component jurisdictions and as between those units and the central government.
“While adoption of the Constitution marked transition to a closer union, that instrument provided little machinery for intergovernmental communications and collaboration. At times, lack of established channels of communication made it more difficult for the federal government to collaborate with a state than with a foreign nation.”
Even the language used by state leaders when addressing landmark federal legislation is relatively familiar.
“A significant problem could develop when federal laws make state expenditure mandatory for certain programs—mandatory in the sense that states would be threatened with the loss of other federal funds devoted to programs to which the people were accustomed unless they complied with certain rules.”
That’s not language addressing recent changes to America’s health care laws, but rather Missouri Gov. Warren C. Hearnes commenting on the launch of Medicaid during CSG’s annual meeting in 1966. Not coincidentally, during this same meeting, the CSG Executive Committee endorsed the idea of a new office in Washington, D.C., to monitor federal affairs and advocate for specific policy positions on behalf of the states—recognition of the stronger voice states would need in our nation’s capital.
Looking back a bit further at the state-federal relationship, CSG Executive Director Frank Bane, speaking to the CSG Executive Committee in 1943, said, “It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the organization and establishment of large agencies with thousands of employees scattered throughout the country, duplicating in many instances governmental agencies already in existence is unnecessary, undesirable, and almost always detrimental to the fullest use of our facilities.”
Bane’s comments came amidst what the states considered to be significant federal overreach during the Second World War. For instance, the states objected strenuously to—and ultimately derailed—plans to federalize state unemployment compensation systems, federalize regulation of motor transport and fix the salary of state officials. Even during the seemingly unifying years of World War II, the states and federal government were not in lock step.
Such frustrations continued once the war was over, even as states were in the enviable position of having widespread budget surpluses. But the war had taken its toll on manufacturing, manpower shortages and an increased expectation of public services.
Writing in his annual report to the CSG Executive Committee in 1947, Bane noted that states sought innovative ways to bolster revenue, but “most of the states found productive sources almost always used by, and in many instances pre-empted by, the federal government.”
Bane continued that this conversation on taxation—in particular conflicting and overlapping taxes at the local, state and federal levels— if left unchecked ran the risk of destroying our federal system of government and turning the states into “mere administrative units of an overall central discretionary government.”
Similar Points 1973, 2013
Advancing a quarter century to 1973, the condition of the state-federal relationship had not markedly improved and CSG Executive Director Brevard Crihfield shared several points for consideration with the CSG membership on state-federal relations, including:
A just and equitable sharing of intergovernmental authority and responsibility in the American federal system is essential and can be achieved.
The federal government cannot be successful if it grows ever larger, ever more burdensome and ever more strangled in red tape.
Before we can effectively decentralize the federal power mass, there is need to rationalize it, integrate it and bring it under control.
Having accomplished this, we can then turn to the real job of building delivery services through the respective governmental levels best suited to perform.
Let’s face it, some public functions will realistically position at the federal level.
Let’s also face it, the formidable national tax and money machine must continue as a vehicle for federal aid—but aid not based on outdated categorical grants that stultify initiative and hamper innovation.
Congress and future administrations must learn the facts of life concerning state budgetary and appropriations processes.
Let’s not let recent clashes between state and federal officials disenchant the states and the Congress with the concept of federal revenue sharing, block grants, eclectic decentralization and other devices to get the job done better at reasonable cost.
It takes years of grinding effort to get this done.
No Simpler Time
David McCullough, the noted author and historian put this into context as he spoke to state leaders during CSG’s 2013 National Conference in Kansas City. He cautioned state policymakers to not think of today’s challenges as the hardest of all time.
“I think we need to recall for our own benefit that times past were never simpler. That you hear people off-and-on on television, these wizards say ‘you have to understand, that was a simpler time.’ There was no simpler time … ever.”