The Republican congressional leadership has failed to articulate strong themes to counter the big-government policies of President Obama and the Democrats. People don’t know what the Republican Party stands for, partly because they rarely, if ever, see leaders such as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on television presenting a coherent vision or a specific program of cuts.
Republicans have particularly dropped the ball on federalism, or the devolving of power back to the states and the people. Reviving federalism was a central theme of the Reagan administration, and it was also a focus of Republican reform efforts in the 1990s.
So I was pleased to see Ohio governor and presidential candidate John Kasich focus on federalism in his new fiscal reform plan. In the Washington Post today, he said:
Let’s start with infrastructure. The interstate system is long finished, and states already oversee their own highway design and construction. Americans don’t need a costly federal highway bureaucracy. I will return the federal gas taxes to the states, leaving only a sliver with the federal government for truly national needs. Then, I will downsize the Transportation Department and reassign it a smaller role, supporting states with research and safety standards. Federal spending would go down, resources available for highways and transit could go up, and states could work faster.
The Education Department will receive a similar approach. Washington isn’t America’s principal or its teacher. Education is a local issue, and decisions should be made by parents, our communities and our local educators. We need high standards, but they are not Washington’s business. I will bundle the department’s funds and send them back to the states with fewer strings attached. The department will be a research center and a local school booster, not a micromanager.
I’d go further than Kasich on many of his proposals, but the important thing is that he is articulating a clear approach to spending reform and reduction. By contrast, House Republicans just introduced a 543-page transportation bill that would increase federal highway and transit spending. The House GOP probably imagines they are being conservative because their spending on transportation would grow more slowly than Senate GOP spending. But the proper amount of federal spending on transit, for example, is not $9.6 billion or $10.6 billion, but zero.
Reviving federalism is a powerful idea for policy reform because it cuts across a vast swath of activities in just about every federal department. And it is a winning theme with the general public, as Emily Ekins and I discuss in this article.
Republican leaders ought to follow Kasich’s lead and explore federalism reforms. If they want to bone up on the advantages of decentralization, they can start with this essay at Downsizing Government. I’d also highly recommend A Less Perfect Union by Adam Freedman for an overview of the history, economics, and constitutional aspects of federal-state relations.