With the dramatic change about to take place in the White House, the time is ripe to discuss an overarching issue: should the federal government’s vast role in areas which the Constitution primarily leaves to the states be sharply reduced?
There can be little doubt that the founding fathers both worried about federal activities beyond those specified in the Constitution and took particular and very specific steps to prevent them from occurring. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution is quite clear and specific:
“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.”
John Tamney, in a Forbes article, wrote that
“The U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment is arguably the most important of all the amendments …What the 10th Amendment tells us is that the powers of the federal government are quite limited, and that any powers not enumerated to Washington in the first nine amendments automatically revert to the states. This was the founders’ way of keeping the federal government small so that individuals could choose the kind of government they wanted based on the state in which they chose to live…with politicians on both sides of the aisle driven by incentives that have told them to ignore the 10th amendment, Americans suffer under laws and bureaucracies created in Washington that would not exist had politicians adhered to the Constitution’s limiting ways… Washington’s powers would be limited so that citizens could choose their governments locally while keeping an eye on their activities.”
Throughout the 20th century, Washington’s role continued to increase dramatically, and that trend continued in the current era.
Chris Edwards, writing in Downsizing Government,
“The federal government has developed a complex financial relationship with state governments through the grants-in-aid system. The system has grown steadily for more than a century as the federal government has become involved in an increasing array of state and local activities. Today there are more than 1,100 different federal aid programs for the states, with each program having its own rules and regulations. The system is a complicated mess, and it is getting worse all the time…It wasn’t supposed to be this way…President Ronald Reagan noted in a 1987 executive order, ‘Federalism is rooted in the knowledge that our political liberties are best assured by limiting the size and scope of the national government.’Unfortunately, policymakers and courts have mainly discarded federalism in recent decades. Congress has undertaken many activities that were traditionally reserved to the states and the private sector. Grants-in-aid are a key mechanism that the federal government has used to extend its power into state and local affairs. Grant programs are subsidies that come part and parcel with federal regulations designed to micromanage state and local activities…There are few, if any, advantages of federalizing state and local activities through grant programs, but many disadvantages. The aid system encourages excessive spending and bureaucratic waste, creates a lack of political accountability, and stifles policy diversity and innovation in the states. With the ongoing flood of red ink in Washington, now would be a good time to begin cutting the vastly overgrown grants-in-aid system…the number of federal aid programs for the states is more than triple the number just 25 years ago…The federal aid system is a roundabout way to fund state and local activities that serves no important economic or practical purpose. The system has many widely-recognized failings, but a web of special interest groups block reforms. Those groups include the hundreds of trade associations that represent the recipients of federal aid and the millions of state and local employees that depend on federal aid to pay their salaries. The aid system thrives not because it creates good governance, but because it maximizes benefits to politicians. “
In 2010, Michael G. Waddoups, president of the Utah Senate, and David Clark, speaker of the Utah House of Representatives proposed what they termed a “modest experiment” in a Washintgton Post article:
“We are greatly concerned about the unprecedented expansion of the federal government over many years, and the enormous debt levels being left to our children and grandchildren. We believe the federal government is attempting to do far more than it has the capacity to execute well. Congress has inserted itself into every aspect of our lives with laws and regulations that don’t fit the widely divergent nature of the states and localities. The job descriptions assumed by President Obama and Congress have grown far larger than their ability to deliver. We’d like to relieve some of their burden. We don’t believe that 535 members of Congress and the president can educate our children, provide health care, pave our roads and protect our environment as well as the nation’s 8,000 state legislators and tens of thousands of local officials. So please, let us help. Let’s select a few programs — say, education, transportation and Medicaid — that are managed mostly by Utah’s government, but with significant federal dollars and a plethora of onerous federal interventions and regulations. Let Utah take over these programs entirely. But let us keep in our state the portion of federal taxes Utah residents pay for these programs. The amount would not be difficult to determine. Rather than send this money through the federal bureaucracy, we would retain it and would take full responsibility for education, transportation and Medicaid — minus all federal oversight and regulation. We recognize that, financially, this is not the best deal for Utah. We would not receive our share of debt revenue used in these programs, and Utah taxpayers would continue to pay our share of the interest on the national debt used for these programs in other states.Even so, we believe we can operate these programs more efficiently and productively without federal strings and mandates…If it works, perhaps other states would choose to opt out of federal programs and retain the federal tax dollars paying for them. This could eventually relieve Washington of massive obligations while also restoring a better balance in the federal system.”
The effects on governance and individual freedom in America of Washington’s growing dominance of domestic program spending has not been beneficial. Josh Eboch, writing for the Tenth Amendment Center explains that State obsequiousness to central authority in exchange for federal tax dollars has resulted in significant loss of individual freedom over the years.
Leaving aside the vital issue of Constitutionality, did Washington’s intervention in matters legally left to the states produce positive results? David Muhlhausen, Ph.D, writing for the Heritage Foundation,, found that the answer was no.
“Missing almost completely from debates over federal funding levels is any discussion of whether the programs being bankrolled actually achieve their stated goals. American taxpayers deserve better…One sensible approach to effectively allocating tax dollars is what is known as evidence-based policymaking. Evidence-based policymaking would use scientifically rigorous evaluations of government programs to inform decision-making. Unfortunately, policymakers rarely base their funding decisions on real evidence of effectiveness. The federal government has spent decades trying to improve the earnings of low-income individuals through various employment and training programs, but the Government Accountability Office has concluded that there is little evidence indicating that any of them actually work. It’s been estimated that only about one percent of federal non-defense discretionary spending is backed by any evidence of effectiveness. Clearly, very few federal programs have been evaluated to determine how well they’re working—or if they’re working at all.”
The American people have noticed the negative results.
The CATO Institutes’ Roger Pilon, testifying before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, Committee on the Government Reform and Oversight in 1995 stated:
“the people and the states no longer trust Washington not simply because Washington has been doing a less than satisfactory job but, more deeply, because Washington has assumed a vast array of regulatory and redistributive powers that were never its to assume—not, that is, if we take the Constitution seriously. Thus, the question the people and the states are increasingly putting to Washington is simply this: By what authority do you rule us as you do?”
A 2012 Pew Research Center poll reported that
“Just a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, the lowest positive rating in 15 years. Yet opinions about state and local governments remain favorable, on balance. As a result, the gap between favorable ratings of the federal government and state and local governments is wider than ever. Ten years ago, roughly two-thirds of Americans offered favorable assessments of all three levels of government: federal, state and local. But in the latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted April 4-15, 2012 among 1,514 adults nationwide, the favorable rating for the federal government has fallen to just 33%; nearly twice as many (62%) have an unfavorable view.By contrast, ratings of state governments remain in positive territory, with 52% offering a favorable and 42% an unfavorable opinion of their state government. And local governments are viewed even more positively. By roughly two-to-one (61% to 31%) most Americans offer a favorable assessment of their local government.”
A 2016 Gallup poll confirmed that finding.
“A majority of Americans (55%) favor the theory of government that concentrates power in state governments, outnumbering the 37% who favor power concentrated in the federal government. The latest update of this question — asked only twice before, in 1936 and 1981 — is from a June 14-23 Gallup poll…”
The issue is primed to rise in prominence. The Dallas Morning News reported last January that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is leading a call for a convention to “ wrest power from a federal government ‘run amok,’ noting that “If we are going to fight for, protect and hand on to the next generation, the freedom that [President] Reagan spoke of … then we have to take the lead to restore the rule of law in America.”
Originally published on New York Analysis of Policy and Government.