Taking a Stand against Nanny Grants

More than a few of the adventurous initiatives of today’s nanny state emerge from federal-local partnerships in which Washington ships federal tax money to selected local governments for the purpose of launching new campaigns or ordinances against things that are bad for us. Thus it has been with Michael Bloomberg’s anti-food and -drink activism, which the Obama Administration persistently subsidizes by way of grants from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies.

As Michael Greve points out in his new book The Upside-Down Constitution, arrangements of this sort epitomize some of the most dysfunctional aspects of our system of federalism. They hide political accountability, since the favored local governments need not make a case to their own budgetary decision-makers for the expenditure as the highest and best use of scarce funds (hey, this is free federal money, why turn it down?). At the same time, the amounts involved are small enough in relation to the vast sea of overall federal spending that they generally escape close scrutiny in Congress. They allow federal incumbents to develop politically fruitful alliances with like-minded local political elites. And they often result in splashy, news-making local initiatives which go farther than Washington could politically permit itself to go: for example, given the importance of farm-state votes, the Obama administration has prudently avoided head-on vilification of the American diet, even as it funnels money to mayoral allies in farm-free Gotham and other cities to engage in just such vilification.

Fortunately, some in Congress are seeing through the charade. As The Hill reports, and Marc Scribner relates in more detail at CEI “Open Market,” some House members are determined to block a nascent grant program in which uber-Nanny Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, would be empowered to send money to states to bribe them into taking steps against “distracted driving.” As we have argued in this space before, decentralized state and local rulemaking – un-distorted by a federal thumb on the scales – is the most promising way of figuring out which regulatory approaches to driver cellphone use genuinely improve safety at an acceptable cost in convenience, expense and other factors. Constitutionally and otherwise, it is simply not the role of the federal government to arm-twist states on their policies regarding driving on local streets and roads far from any Interstate.

Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) is reportedly offering a motion to instruct conferees to stand fast on the House’s disapproval of the grant program, which will be argued today. This would make a good place to draw the line against the continued expansion of the centrally directed nanny state.