PT talks with William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, about the role of federalism in our contemporary political structure.
PT: Federalism represents one of the core principles of American government. Would you describe it best as "a general government and sovereign states" or more of a "partnership?"
Pound: I agree that it's a partnership in governing. It has become very difficult to define spheres of exclusive responsibility.
PT: While the federal government has focused on defense, foreign relations, and overseeing interstate commerce, what responsibilities have the states performed best?
Pound: The states are doing a good job in several areas including education and human services. Or, take transportation, for example. There's a lot of innovation in the way it's being financed. There is federal money, but the states are taking the lead. A lot of these areas are also becoming co-dependent with the federal government.
PT: You recently spent some time with Secretary of Education Spellings. Education is one area where the borders between federal and state responsibilities have become blurred.
Pound: Clearly, you have the federal government's role in NCLB in K-12. But, higher education is frequently overlooked. State schools are funded better in good times, much less in worse times. Higher education is very much related to the country's economic competitiveness, but our graduation rate is declining compared to the rest of the world—our students are taking a longer time to graduate.
The states are not thinking in a strategic way about higher education, and we need to encourage the legislatures to get more involved. Also, there needs to be more accountability in terms of the types of education that state colleges are providing. What do students know when they graduate?
A shift back to the states?
PT: Structurally, how have the contours of federalism evolved over the past 220 years?
Pound: From independence through World War I, we went through a period of state-dominated federalism. The New Deal and World War II brought more balance, when government became more Washington-centric.
Since the Reagan Era, it's become a little more balanced. We see much more policy innovation at the state level. For example, take education reform. As a policy maker, the ability to be innovative is much greater at state level.
PT: Why do you think that shift back to the states has occurred?
Pound: Washington has not had the resources. Congress just didn't have the wherewithal to finance many of the necessary programs.
PT: But doesn't the federal government have far greater resources than the states—isn't this more a question of how the president and Congress have decided to use those resources?
Pound: Yes, the federal government has more potential revenue-generating power than the states. For national government, it's a question of priorities. You could say that every now and then, we need a sorting out process around here.
Take health care. While health care is virtually entirely delivered at the local level, ultimately, there should be a federal solution. States are experimenting, but it will ultimately have to be funded at the federal level. Or immigration, where the states can prod and put band-aids on it, but only the federal government can solve it.
Likewise, the federal government has spent resources on projects that the states could have handled. Take roads, where the United States built the interstate system. The states could have dealt with that. Or look at earmarks: Why is the federal government building a sidewalk in Santa Rosa? Law enforcement is traditionally local, but now the federal government is getting involved. Clearly, Washington has moved to set certain standards in education, but the states finance roughly 50% of the education system.
PT: If our Constitution calls for a partnership, the states have been accused of being laggards in the past. Has that situation reversed itself over the past several decades?
Pound: In the New Deal, yes, too often the states weren't holding up their end of the bargain. Today, however, the states would argue that the federal government has not upheld its end. For example, Congress never adequately funded the commitment to special education. You could argue that in several areas.
PT: At NCSL's Fall Forum in San Antonio last year, the Town Meeting evoked an unexpectedly vocal reaction to the Real ID. You could almost call it "aggressive?"
Pound: "Aggressive" is the right word to describe it. The federal government is effectively commandeering the driver's license for another purpose. Not that it hasn't been done by others, but Congress is then asking the states to meet standards that are still not named and to pay for it. . The deadline is next year, and there's no sign of anything happening.
The privacy aspect has been totally overlooked. We've never had a debate on whether we should have a national ID. Will the new Congress be willing to revisit it? I don't know.
Reservoirs of political authority
PT: In an article published in the July 2006 State Legislatures magazine, you seem to suggest that the federal government has increasingly overstepped its authority in certain areas. Would you expand on that point?
Pound: To a certain extent, you could say that. The Real ID is one example. In the education area, they've been far too prescriptive in not allowing the states to approach the goals in different ways.
PT: Why—what do you see as the reasons behind this?
Pound: It goes back to politics. And, it's not only individuals, but our federal system allows a lot of venue shopping. Interest group politics have become even more pronounced. Someone who can't get their way in California, will bring their case to Washington.
PT: You mention "individuals." What happens to civic-minded, well-intentioned politicians when they go to Sacramento or Washington?
Pound: Everyone wants to make policy. Everyone wants to be sheriff. There's a desire for everybody to be a hero, to do good, to satisfy the people.
PT: One of our mayors in California told us, "because we call them 'legislator,' they think their job is to create more laws. They don't spend nearly enough time on oversight of [government] agencies." Any thoughts?
Pound: The political payoff is much less from oversight than from legislation. Also, legislatures do not do oversight well: there are some exceptions, but it's particularly true of Congress. We'll see if that changes under the new Democratic majority.
PT: One last question. Aside from what the states can accomplish locally, do they serve as reservoir of broad political authority at the national level—part of the Constitution's "checks and balances" model?
Pound: Checks and balances are usually thought of in terms of the three branches of government, but the answer is "yes." The states can be more aggressive. State legislation increases the pressure on the feds, if nothing else, because industry then comes to the Feds and says, "help!" States' attorneys general have forced governmental action-take Bill Lockyer in California and Eliot Spitzer in New York for example.
PT: Bill, thank you very much for your time.
About William Pound
William Pound is the Executive Director of the National Council of State Legislatures.