December 6, 2023

failure of federalism

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
A failure of federalism
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON – “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” provides the biblical underpinning of federalism, the idea that diffusion of power is superior to concentration of power. Our Founding Fathers were primary advocates of this system of government in reaction to the centralization of power in London, a centralization they regarded as contributing to tyranny. Today, federalism is contributing to a pandemic.
         In the late 18th century problems already arose between concept and implementation. The concept is beneficial in providing checks and balances as well as local control which encourages local involvement. Misallocations of power, however, created the political infrastructure problems we face today.
         It began because 13 separate colonies answerable to the government in London were suddenly answerable to no higher government once the Revolution began. The Continental Congresses met but had no power over the autonomous colonies. The Articles of Confederation following the war codified such sovereignties and failed. And, so was born the Constitution and federalism.
         The Constitution divided the federal government into executive, judicial and legislative branches and further divided the legislative branch into two houses, all the while recognizing the pseudo independence of the former colonies, now states. This was immediately followed by the ratification of 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, among which is the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Slavery was among those undelegated powers.
         Today, there are 50 state driving laws, 50 DMVs, 50 educational systems, 50 election laws, 50 tax systems, 50 professional licensing regulations, etc. It is literally impossible to drive across the country and be in compliance with every state’s laws. Anecdotally, drive up the East Coast to New York City and find yourself breaking the law upon arrival by making a right turn on red.
         In America, today, we have federal laws, state laws, and local laws – enough laws to dumbfound a law professor. However, federalism can work if powers are properly allocated. Land use and zoning laws come to mind. Driving and election laws should not.
         This brings us to the current pandemic crisis, which is exposing in starkest terms the problems associated with the misallocation of powers under federalism. Eight state governors are refusing to impose significant restrictions to combat the coronavirus, and the president has agreed that is their right, stating, “We have a thing called the Constitution,” even though the failure to take precautions in one state can affect people in all states. Further, the president stood by as governors competed with one another and with the federal government for critical medical supplies. Wars, whether against visible or invisible foes are not fought at the state level, except, of course, in the War of 1812 when certain New England states refused to participate and even provided supplies to the enemy – and we know how that worked out.
         Now, thanks in part to a misguided adherence to a strict constructionist view of a federalism model created more than two centuries ago, an epidemic has become a pandemic.
         It is time to upgrade that model by reassessing and reallocating federal and state powers, including the establishment of national elections, national DMVs, national school funding, and, especially, national disease control among others. A national crisis requires a national response.
         Douglas Cohn’s latest books are World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers) and The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency.
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2020 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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