Reviving Federalism Is a Winning Issue

In his new book, Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley argues that Congress should abolish the entire federal aid-to-state system to save money and improve American governance. A recent Cato study shows that there is substantial public support for reforms in that direction.

In “Public Attitudes toward Federalism,” John Samples and Emily Ekins review decades of polling data to discern views on federal policymaking vs. state/local policymaking. They find strong support for state/local primacy in many policy areas, including education, housing, transportation, welfare, and health care.

The authors find that Americans have become more strongly in favor of state/local control—as opposed to federal control—since the 1970s. For example, when asked whether “major decisions” about housing policy ought to be made at the federal level or state/local level, just 18 percent favor federal today compared to 28 percent four decades ago.

The political opening here is obvious: reformers on Capitol Hill should push to reduce the federal role—by cutting spending and regulations—in those areas where the public has a clear preference for state/local primacy. From constitutional and good governance perspectives, many federal agencies and programs ought to be eliminated, but the Samples/Ekins study indicates areas that reformers should target first.

Why is reviving federalism a politically appealing reform? Because the public has a much more favorable view of state/local governments than the federal government. Samples and Ekins find that 58 percent of people have a favorable view of local government, compared to just 32 percent for the federal government. Asked which level of government provides the most value for their tax dollars, 33 percent said the federal government and 67 percent said state/local governments. Asked whether government provides “competent service,” 31 percent agreed with regard to the federal government and 48 percent agreed with regard to local governments. On average, Americans believe that the federal government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar it spends.

The Samples/Ekins results show that self-identified Republicans have a stronger belief in decentralized policymaking than do Democrats. So reviving federalism is a ripe opportunity for the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.


George Will reviews Buckley’s book today in the Washington Post, and you can read more about federalism here.