When American citizens look to Washington, D.C., they find much to be disappointed in and even less to believe in. The fundamental problem is that the federal government has, through its regulatory and spending powers, usurped much of the governing authority for the republic.
However, for reasons both predictable and lamentable, it has failed to govern well for decades, with policy breakdowns occurring across the board. Peter Schuck observed in his book “Why Government Fails So Often” that most federal government policies cannot pass a transparent cost-benefits test. But this dysfunctional government results from size and scope—from the federal government vastly exceeding a competency scale that our Constitution attempted to establish.
There is no manifest line in the Constitution that guides the distribution of power between the federal government and the state governments. In the Federalist Papers, Publius argues that the question will be decided by citizens about where to place power, and their judgment will turn on competency in administration. This process inevitably will be a deliberative one, influenced by elections, arguments, and results.
If so, we should record that federal spending is now so large and so encompassing that it swallows the ability of the states to be self-governing and accountable to their citizens. This has occurred through ever-expanding federal grants-in-aid. These programs should be culled for the restoration of constitutional order and its commitment to a self-governing people.
As Philip Hamburger argues in his new book “Purchasing Submission,” the federal government can impose laws and rules on the states through the so-called Spending Power. The constitutional authority of the government to act in this capacity is suspect, and its consequences go beyond the mere size of the expenditures. And yet, on federal spending, we are also facing real limits on government power, with negative consequences in the form of inflation, chronic indebtedness, and lost economic growth.
Our country even faces potential catastrophic entitlement cuts, since, as a debtor nation, we continue to pay for present expenses with long-term debt instruments that we cannot afford to pay without drastic tax increases, spending cuts, or both.
Of course, most of our state governments eagerly seek federal grants and funding. Even though such money comes with strings attached to Washington, most states can’t leave well enough alone. What do they lose by taking the money—funds that enable them to claim success for services to constituents whose real costs are not actually paid for by the state’s taxpayers?
The loss is that we as citizens no longer govern ourselves in an open and competitive fashion versus other states. This crucial discipline over state governments is circumvented. However, the loss of self-government includes not only the states. Members of Congress no longer focus their undivided attention on what should be for them the more pressing objectives of national government. The federal government now gets wagged by the tail, turned on behalf of local concerns and interests that are served by grant programs.
The failure here is to assume that federal spending in the form of grants to states and localities will produce better policy results than if local priorities had been decided by the actual authorities elected by that state’s voters. Thus does the centralization of power and its enthronement of experts continue unabated as the prime mover in American government.
What must happen for the proper liberation of the states to govern themselves in full? That would entail ceasing federal grants through a constitutional amendment. This would save billions of dollars and, crucially, restore Congress to its proper function of deliberating national problems and issues.
The American people must be able to locate authority and accountability in their state governments, which should be led by officials who are fully transparent with their citizens about the costs of programs that must be borne by actual citizens in the state, not by federal taxpayers in an endless game of fiscal shapeshifting. In this way, the federal government would stick to its basic set of truly national issues. The states would become what they were meant to be: entities that govern close to the people, shaping the communities within their jurisdiction, in ways that a national government cannot.
RealClear Books & Culture