As President Trump fulfills a campaign promise to return control of K-12 education to the states, it’s a refreshing reminder that federalism really can be accomplished to some extent even as both parties vie for greater power in DC. His “Education Federalism Executive Order” will launch a 300-day review of Obama-era regulations and guidance for school districts and directs Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to modify or repeal measures she deems an overreach by the federal government.
This is wonderful news. Hopefully, it’s not the last we hear about federalism coming from the administration.
At any given moment, Republicans or Democrats may be embracing some variation of federalism. Once President Trump took office, it became very popular for Democrats to start talking about allowing states to make decisions for themselves with California leading their charge of applying federalism selectively. As for Republicans, federalism seems to be the catch-all last resort; when they have a topic that’s either too toxic or something they failed to address with their standard measures, they turn to federalism for solutions.
We’ve seen examples of each of these springing up over the last couple of years. Should we be applauding their efforts? No. For federalism to work, it must be applied as an overarching philosophy of governance, not as a cherry-picked buzzword to throw out there when it’s politically expedient.
Over the last few days, I’ve had some free time to explore the ways both major parties attempt to apply federalism. That’s the one silver lining to being under the weather – plenty of reading time. As I caught up on as many of the recent pushes for federalism as I could find, there was one unifying quality to the stories. They all used federalism as a means to an end rather than as the end itself.
Americans need federalism now. It’s not fair to say we need it now more than ever because we’ve always needed it. Just because the tenets of federalism are applied less today than in the past doesn’t mean the need is more dire. That’s not how federalism works. You don’t sprinkle a little of it over your salad and call it a day. You embrace it as the standard by which American government from top to bottom is administered.
To do this, we have to apply the Constitution to everything government does. We start at the federal level since DC is the entity that exemplifies our nation’s trajectory towards statism. Piece by piece, we tear down the administrative state by asking two simple questions: does the Constitution allow this and would it be better handled locally?
An example of how the first question is applied would be Obamacare. One must do constitutional gymnastics in order to give a reason why the federal government should be so deeply involved in the health insurance industry. The Affordable Care Act is a hodgepodge of different loopholes and law-bending tactics put together to create the illusion that there’s nothing wrong with the government completely overreaching into a private industry that applies to nearly every American. On these grounds alone, it should be repealed. There are plenty of other grounds for repealing it, the most conspicuous being that is has failed magnificently to make healthcare more affordable, accessible, or improved.
The second question has the perfect example holding many of our children for much of the day Monday through Friday. The education system is broken. The Department of Education is a three-decade-old failed experiment. The only thing keeping the illusion alive that it’s helpful in any way is that DC has taken a huge amount of taxpayer dollars and redirected it to programs intended to improve education. They pay for so much that happens in the public school system that most people involved in it couldn’t imagine what life would be like without the federal government’s handouts. DC has been able to embed itself through taxpayer dollars and has demonstrably botched every effort to make the system better.
If less money was taken by the federal government, more money could go directly from taxpayers to their schools. Today, most taxpayer dollars applied to education don’t even go towards our children’s education. Imagine if those same dollars (or less) were applied at the school, district, city, county, and state levels instead. We’d have more control over the quality of our children’s education. More importantly, there would no longer be the federal standards scapegoat invoked by many school administrators today.
Federalism works because it allows more responsibility to be taken at the local level. When the responsibility is in the hands of our neighbors instead of bureaucrats and lifetime politicians in DC, voters have much more say. Our voices can be heard by our leaders and representatives when we’re meeting them for coffee instead of sending them emails or Tweeting at their social media interns. Moreover, our votes have more pull.
Federalism does NOT work when it’s applied piecemeal. It can certainly help in individual situations on certain issues, such as the plan to put food stamps under the control of states instead of the USDA. There are other times when applying federalism in one-off situations is wrong, such as the argument that sanctuary cities are a form of righteous federalism. I’ll flesh out why that’s not the case in a future article.
If our nation can put the tenets of federalism into action across the board, we can begin the process of taking down the budgets, bureaucracies, and powers that have been in a continuous state of accumulation for decades. Only then can we be certain our freedoms stay intact and every American has an opportunity at prosperity.