Executive Summary #1245es
January 27, 1999
Last May, the White House ignited a surprising political firestorm when it released Executive Order (E.O.) No. 13083 on federalism policymaking. As public awareness of the content of this executive order grew, it triggered a unique series of events that placed the Clinton Administration on the defensive and ultimately forced it to abandon the new form of federalism it had tried to establish through this executive order.
After many years of neglect, Washington's policy elites once again are talking about the importance of federalism in the American system of constitutional governance. Federalism--which uniquely determines the relationship between and among the jurisdictions of the federal, state, and local governments--is perhaps most succinctly described in the words of President Ronald Reagan's Domestic Policy Council Working Group on Federalism: a "constitutionally based, structural theory of government designed to ensure political freedom and responsive, democratic government in a large and diverse society." Federalism has long been considered by many to be the ultimate guardian of liberty within the American Republic.
The reaction to President Bill Clinton's surprising executive order helped to forge a bipartisan alliance among Members of Congress, state and local officials, interest groups, legal scholars, political commentators, and average citizens who believed that E.O. 13083 violated certain sacred tenets of the U.S. Constitution on the proper division of powers for the various levels of government. This alliance signaled a renewed interest among the people at large in examining how best to reinvigorate and protect the Founding Fathers' original system of federalism. In fact, the renewed focus on protecting federalism eventually forced President Clinton to withdraw his executive order just a few months after issuing it.
Sadly, however, President Clinton appears not to have learned any lesson from last year's federalism fight. In his recent State of the Union Address, he showcased a litany of new federal programs that ignore the proper constitutional balance of powers by promoting even more federal intrusion into matters that are best dealt with by state or local governments.
As the 106th Congress--the last Congress of the 20th century--begins its important work, it must examine the system of government that has developed over the past decade and delineate areas in which reform is needed to protect the Framers' dynamic system of federalism for the future. Legislators must establish firm principles and strategies to reinvigorate federalism, and then devise a timetable to accomplish these goals in the near and long terms. If the 106th Congress succeeds in implementing such reforms as those summarized in Table 1, this accomplishment may stand as its most important legacy to future generations.
Adam D. Thiereris a former Alex C. Walker Fellow in Economic Policy at The Heritage Foundation.