We don’t need a divorce. We need federalism
The recently rehabilitated Marjorie Taylor Greene and a few other fringy figures have floated the idea of a national dissolution, or divorce, with Republicans and Democrats ensconced within their own national boundaries. While we are manifestly a divided nation, such a separation is impractical for many reasons, including the necessity of an integrated national defense. And what happens to North Carolina? Do we fracture into a Blue Piedmont with Red East and a Red West? Or do we divide along the lines of our barbecue preferences?
For better or worse, in richness and in $1 trillion annual deficits, Americans are indissolubly tied together. This unalterable fact reminds me of the reality confronting my Greensboro, North Carolina, high school after a period of unrest in the mid-1970s. A less-than-inspiring (but at the same time realistic) motto was crafted by the administration or student council: “Let’s face it; we’re all Whirlies.”
So as Americans, we must hang together. But that doesn’t mean there cannot be a framework where citizens feel their concerns are heard more acutely than they are today — with a current dynamic where the input of all but the most influential citizens are swallowed up by the Leviathan that is the modern federal government.
The answer is a return to at least a modicum of federalism, with states regaining some of their lost standing, and with a renewed sense of rights granted to “the people” as explicitly set forth in the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution. Somewhere along the line, probably about 1933, the notion of a limited national government began its decline.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to limit the federal government to its constitutionally circumscribed role, but its role can and should be reduced. This can be done within a reasonable framework — meaning that, despite catastrophizing to the contrary, Social Security and Medicare are not going to be eliminated.
Recent unilateral actions by the executive branch illustrate the breathtaking reach of federal authority, but also hint at some hope, at least at the margins. President Biden’s cancelling of federal student loan debt would have been unthinkable in years past but was unblinkingly executed under the auspices of a federal law designed to assist military veterans in financial distress. The Supreme Court seems likely to strike this action down as an abuse of presidential authority. In a similar vein, a conservative high court was all that prevented mandatory COVID vaccines for all workers at businesses with more than one hundred employees.
On the other hand, a federal agency putatively dedicated to disease control WAS able to mandate an eviction moratorium across the United States.
While those were egregious executive initiatives, the sweep of congressional legislation knows few if any bounds. If you doubt that, you can spend much of the rest of your life reading through the pages of the “Inflation Reduction Act,” which somehow reduces inflation by spending well over a trillion dollars. Providing funding for an additional 87,000 IRS agents does not exactly convey a sense of restraint on the part of Congress.
We can start reducing the size of government by eliminating superfluous cabinet offices. Does education policy rationally fall within the purview of a federal agency? Education should by all rights be within the exclusive domain of the states. Most health-related legislation — genuine national emergencies excepted — should be enacted at the state level. Why do we need a Department of Labor? Can we perhaps limit the role of the FBI and CIA to the roles for which they were conceived, rather than unwarranted and unsanctioned domestic surveillance?
Even when states do pass theoretically independent legislation, it is with full recognition of, and submission to, an all-encompassing federal government. North Carolina Republican leaders recently announced a compromise which would potentially add 600,000 citizens to the state’s Medicaid rolls. Why would Republicans propose such a huge expansion of the entitlement state? Because the federal government is there to cover 90% of the costs of the Medicaid expansion. One thing is certain; once an entitlement is granted it will never be taken away.
A return to divided power would have the benefit of bringing people closer to the entities that exercise control over their lives. The founders wanted representatives that were responsive to the sentiments of citizens, rather than being sequestered from them in a remote federal district. Separation of powers and divided government were a product of our foundational genius. It would be fair to ask whether the founders would recognize the government that escaped from their constitutionally constrained laboratory.
It does not take a national annulment for power to devolve from the federal government to the states. Granting the states more autonomy would lessen the stakes of national elections ever so slightly and would also place in even more stark relief the different policies and practices of individual states. People with the inclination to do so can decide with their feet the kind of government they want. This is already happening: witness the declining California population census.
A federal government with a bit less of a grasp on its people would not cure all or even most of our ills, but its machinations would infect a smaller part of our everyday lives. Staunching the size and scope of government would advance a healthy and enduring union.