Republicans on Conditional Aid to the States

by Reihan Salam

Ezra Klein asks his readers a fair question in light of an earlier post on this blog:

According to Reihan Salam, there is “a broad consensus on [state and local relief]: conservatives, including a large number of Republican lawmakers, accept the idea that there should be some help from the federal government. Yet those on the right tend to prefer conditional assistance.”

Is this true? Is there a Republican consensus that we should provide state and local relief funds to states that are willing to put forward sensible long-term budget plans? If so, which bills have been submitted, and how many co-sponsors do they have? Or is this one of those compromises that conservative intellectuals like but Republican lawmakers don’t?

While I certainly don’t think conservatives or, separately, Republicans are unanimous on the question of whether state governments should receive conditional transfers in light of the recent revenue collapse, I do think that there is broad consensus that some kind of aid is appropriate. Yet the important proviso here is that the aid should come with very stringent strings attached, and that it should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. That is the basic idea behind Sen. Scott Brown’s Fiscally Responsible Relief for Our States Act. Because there was no prospect of Democratic support for the proposal, it faded after it was first introduced in late June. Brown described the proposal as follows:

There are some programs in that legislation that are important to Massachusetts during this economic crisis — the summer jobs program for young people, unemployment insurance extensions for those still looking for work in this tough economy, as well as additional assistance to the states, known as FMAP — but we need to find a way to pay for them.

Annie Lowrey of The Washington Independent, a critic of the bill, suggested that it would undermine the fiscal stimulus effort:

At a time when many mainstream economists believe the economy needs more juice in the form of government spending, Brown is essentially suggesting holding spending level rather than increasing it. This will not sit well with Democrats. But it is now the Republican party line.

Note that Sen. McConnell did not formally endorse the Brown proposal. But I nevertheless think it is appropriate to characterize something like the Sen. Brown’s Fiscally Responsible Relief for Our States Act as “the Republican party line,” not least because the Republican party has a large presence in state legislatures. I personally favor either a comprehensive cash-for-cuts proposal or a system of federal “advances” against future transfers, as proposed by Christopher Edley Jr. 

It is certainly true that Republicans in the minority have been gun-shy about uniting around detailed legislative alternatives to legislation advanced by the majority. This reflects structural dynamics that Ezra has described very effectively on his blog.   

P.S. I almost forgot something important. Ezra noted the following:


The basic idea behind Brown’s bill is that state aid should be funded using preexisting stimulus dollars. That’s what he talks about in the video. He doesn’t say anything about conditions. And to double-check, I read the bill. Still nothing.

It’s possible I’m missing something in the legislative language, but from what I can see, Brown’s bill doesn’t make aid conditional on state reforms, and it doesn’t have Republican co-sponsors. It provides no evidence for the contention that Republicans would happily partner with Democrats on state aid, if only Democrats would embrace more stringent conditions.

I was drawing on the following language from Sen. Brown’s statement:


While my bill pays for additional FMAP assistance for one more year, this phase-down provides states an opportunity to get their fiscal houses in order – but also makes it clear that they can no longer pass the buck to the federal government, which has budgetary problems of its own. 

I have been in Washington for five months now, and if you’ve followed my voting record you know that I have crossed party lines to support good ideas when I see them. But, as you know, bi-partisanship is a two-way street. I hope that my Democratic colleagues will support this common sense legislation because it is not only good for Massachusetts, but the entire nation.

Ezra didn’t miss anything in the legislative language. Rather, he was missing Sen. Brown’s explicit characterization of his bill — which may well have been misleading. 

I’m grateful to Ezra for highlighting this issue, and I find his framework interesting. It is different from mine, but I’ve certainly learned from his perspective. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.