Pool Grants, Federalism, and the Wellsprings of Government Growth

As part of a 2007 law, Congress decreed the establishment of a new federal program to dangle grants in front of states that agree to enact more stringent laws on swimming pool safety. According to Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Nancy Nord, however, the multi-million-dollar pot Congress has set aside for this purpose has sat unused: “not one state has applied for a grant and not one dollar has been disbursed, despite changes made to improve the program. We will soon have paid CDC [the Centers for Disease Control] almost half a million dollars to administer a grant program with no takers.”

What do you think the odds are that lawmakers will learn from the experience and do away with the grant program? Contrariwise, what do you think the odds are that someone on Capitol Hill right now is preparing to argue that if no states have applied for grants, the amounts on offer must be too low, and new lawmaking is needed to provide for bigger subventions?

In all seriousness, this forlorn little program is a tiny and failed example of a genre of federal initiative that all too often enjoys success: using federal tax dollars to bribe states and localities into raising spending and extending regulation. The proliferation of such programs helps explain why the earlier and sounder idea of federalism – which saw the national and state governments as checking each others’ overweening powers – has given way to a spirit of mutual enablement (“cooperative federalism”) at the expense of the citizenry and its freedom. Thus the Obama administration, realizing that public opinion is not yet ready for a federal-level campaign to demonize fattening and salty foods, is happy to drop millions of dollars on local governments like Mayor Bloomberg’s in New York City to do exactly that. And for decades Congress has been creating programs subsidizing local hiring of teachers, police officers and other public employees – with the presumably unintended result of saddling localities with unsustainable payrolls and pension obligations when times turn tough.

Our friend Michael Greve has a new book out called The Upside-Down Constitution exploring how coordination between once-rival levels of government has been turned into an engine of growth for the leviathan state. You can read more about it here, here, and here at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty site. Relatedly, Greve points out in this post something worth keeping in mind: federalism is a structure, not a balance.