Federalism Vital to Getting America Back on Track

by Matt A. Mayer

In his speech in Louisiana marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pres. Barack Obama articulated his view of the role of the federal government vis-à-vis state and local governments. Unsurprisingly, President Obama views the federal government as the Superman that rescues states and localities in distress from the evils of all injustices. Although he didn’t miss the opportunity to blame former president George W. Bush for the “red tape that has impeded rebuilding efforts for years,” he once again ignored the reality that he has been in charge for roughly one-third of the time since the August 29, 2005, hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast. President Obama doesn’t quite realize that New Orleans’s revival has occurred despite the red tape and bureaucratic paralysis coming from Washington, D.C.

For example, President Obama cites the resiliency of Xavier University, which rebuilt and reopened in record time. Little of the work or funding to make that happen came from the federal government. In a report I co-authored for the Heritage Foundation with Mark DeBosier, the deputy director for disaster recovery for Louisiana’s Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, DeBosier noted: “Many Louisiana communities have grown weary of the [FEMA Project Worksheet] process and the tedium, added costs, and delays of Scope Alignments. Out of desperation to rebuild their community, some applicants have resorted to proceeding with underfunded projects in hopes that somehow the PWs can be adjusted at a later point, before the construction bills come due. Unfortunately, this practice often shifts the burden and risk of loss onto the construction industry to finance these projects until the adjusted PWs are completed, if ever.”

As with most issues, help from the federal government rarely, if ever, comes efficiently and effectively. Our Founding Fathers knew this, given their experience of being ruled from afar. That is why they designed our system to ensure that as much power as possible remained with states and localities (i.e., closest to the people). In a radio interview on the Bill LuMaye show, I talk about the broader issue of federalism and the need to reinvigorate it, as states have grown more dependent on the federal government over the last 80 years. That trend must come to an end.

In the same interview, I also note the role the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, the rulings of the New Deal Court, and the federal income tax played in creating this dependency. I also discuss the common theme between the tea-party movement and the declines of the Republican and Democratic brands — namely, everyday Americans don’t want Washington so involved in their lives. Finally, I propose developing a structural change in the Constitution to give states back the check on the federal government they had prior to the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. Arguably, continuing on the road we are on and have been on will not lead to a stronger and more prosperous America.

Matt A. Mayer is president of the Buckeye Institute.

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