NCSL Podcasts

Exploring Federalism | OAS Episode 203

Episode Summary

Don Kettl, an expert on federalism, joined the podcast to discuss the current state of power sharing between the state and federal governments, why he sees states increasingly at the center of domestic policymaking, and how he expects the balance of federalism to shift in the coming decades.

Episode Notes

Federalism is the foundational structure of our nation’s government. The dynamic sharing of power among federal, state and local governments is the key to understanding American governance in the view our guest on this podcast, Don Kettl, professor emeritus and the former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an expert on federalism.

Kettl, who is the author of more than two dozen books and also writes a monthly column for Governing, joined the podcast to discuss the current state of power sharing between the state and federal governments. He explained why he thinks states increasingly are the center of domestic policymaking, talked about the power relationship between legislatures and governors, and how he expects the balance of federalism to shift in the coming decades. 

Episode Transcription

Ed:      Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host, Ed Smith.


DK:     The federal government has essentially become hamstrung in being able to do much of anything. So much that the policy initiative has shifted to state governments and I think that is one of the great and so far, I think mostly undiscovered truths to what’s happened in the last decade.


Ed:      That was Don Kettl, professor emeritus and the former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an expert on federalism. He is the author of more than two dozen books and also writes a monthly column for governing. Don sat down with me to discuss the current state of power sharing between the state and federal governments and why understanding that dynamic is essential to understandingthe state of governance in the U.S. Don covered a lot of territory in this conversation, including why the states increasingly are the center of domestic policymaking. He also talked about the power relationship between legislatures and governors and how he expects the balance of federalism to shift in the coming decades. Here is our discussion.


            Don, welcome to the podcast.


DK:     It is great to be with you today. 


Ed:      Well, Don, to start, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your research and writing over the years. I know you’ve published more than two dozen books and I wonder if you could share with readers some of the highlights. That’s just that classic question asking you to summarize decades of experience in five minutes, but let’s give it a try. 


DK:     Well, thank you. I appreciate it. And I appreciate the question, too, because it gives me an opportunity to stop and think about where all of this started and where I ended up now. And actually, my earliest work focused on the basic question about how it is that government worked. As a kid, I loved to tinker with things and to build things back even in the days before there were Legos and so I’ve always been curious about how things work. And that question led me to the question of government and how government worked and the question about government work on the ground led me to federalism. My earliest work was on the community development block grant program way back in the ’70s and the question about power is allocated and how our government leadership worked. And so, I’ve been following that question for a long time and following the thread of federalism that is, I think, one of the great constants that really connects things. The big question is about what kind of big decisions we make in domestic policy and how we carry things out. And so, I’ve followed that boundary through the block grant programs, but then poking around issues like Medicaid and then more recently looking at the issues that surrounded COVID. Big question there about how power ought to be distributed. What kind of role the different levels of government ought to have and among other things the great discovery that most people in fact have forgotten that counties really matter because most of the on the ground operations dealing with COVID, dealing with vaccination programs and other things were centered in the public health departments of state governments, which are the agents operating in counties. And so, it’s a big thread that has been carried through my work. I mean, how should we make policy? How does it work? How does it work better and how does accountability work? And so that all is a basic question to federalism and has been for me for literally four decades here.


Ed:      Well, you are certainly right. COVID was an awfully good display for people of how government works and I am not sure everybody grasps the federalism aspect in it, but it certainly did demonstrate that. So, let’s home in on federalism for just a minute. This is, of course, as you indicate the foundational structure of our nation, but it’s not a static thing. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit how federalism has changed in practice over the last 50 years.


DK:     It’s a great question and I think that there have been a couple truly important transformative moments in federalism over the last 50 years. Maybe to go back just slightly further of course to the great society and in terms of federalism, we tend to think about the war on poverty, which is super important. But the real sleeper program that has become far more important over the years has been the creation of Medicaid back in 1965. There is the basic question about what kind of role the government as a whole ought to have in dealing with health care for people who are not wealthy and don’t have insurance. Programs for the poor through Medicaid have been one of the truly important issues of federalism in the last 50 years and now have come to dominate state budgets. That is the largest single element in budgets of states across the country, which is something back in 1965 that I don’t think anybody really imagined was likely to happen. We had that time in the 1970s where Nixon tried to push more decisions back to local governments through block grants, but that in many ways just didn’t work very well. It didn’t work very well because it foundered on the basic questions of who was going to control the money and the feds, as it turned out, didn’t really like the idea of giving money away without being able to control the way in which it was used. 


            Then there was the great deal the states could have taken and didn’t back in the Reagan administration. Reagan actually offered a swap of programs. He said I’ll take Medicaid and health care if you guys in the states take welfare and the governors said oh no, no. We are not going to fall for that one because we know that welfare is the big monster that we can’t control. And so, they passed up on what would have been the salvation of their budgets for all of time. But it turns out that they passed on that deal and in the end ended up with both the responsibilities for welfare and then in addition to that had even greater responsibilities for Medicaid. I’ve been in higher education for a long time and I’ve talked to people over the years about how that deal in many ways was responsible for transforming state support for higher ed because the more money that was allocated to Medicaid, the less money there was for higher ed and much of the financial problems that state governments have been struggling with when it comes to higher ed you know they have their roots in the basic decision about Medicaid. 


            Then we have welfare reform during the Carter I’m sorry during the Clinton administration and in the Clinton administration there was an effort to try to have a grand bargain between the Republicans and Democrats and more state responsibility in dealing with the question about how to ensure that we have work requirements and other things that came out of the great work that was done in Wisconsin then and in Michigan that really transformed the system. Kind of sleeper time I think for federalism for a large part during the Bush administration where we were focusing much more on national issues and homeland security. And where homeland security became this thing at state and local governments didn’t really know that they needed to worry about, but in the process, we ended up with probably the one of the most effective homeland security agencies in the entire country and the guise of the New York City police department. And the fact that now all state governments have to worry about homeland security. But there was the blast that came along the way with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and what we had there was this realization that the things that we needed to do to deal with terrorists from abroad were in many ways the same kind of capacities we needed to deal with hurricanes. 


            So, there is this great realization about the need for greater cooperation between local levels of government, between local governments in the states and between that entire system in the federal government when it came to issues that FEMA dealt with and hurricanes and other kinds of disasters. And then ultimately then we’ve come to these days the battles over immigration which have surprising federalism undercurrents to them. And then that in the backdrop of the battle over COVID – the battle over COVID in terms of what it is that we think ought to be done to try to deal with questions, big questions of public health. And what all these issues have in common is that the question of the financial responsibilities, the federal and the state and local governments, about the way the power gets distributed among levels of government, but then ultimately the fact that we’ve discovered that no one level of government can really control anything anymore. So how we are going to devise the systems of collaboration and cooperation that we need to ensure that the government that citizens want is a government that they get. 


            (TM): 09:13


Ed:      So yeah, I found your column about Richard Nixon very interesting. I think that was kind of the maybe a little before that was when I first started paying attention to politics and government and Nixon, of course, in memory is much maligned, but there were some very interesting things that he did in the environmental realm and then in the area of federalism. So even if that effort to devolve more power back to the states didn’t really work out for Nixon, what you are describing is really sort of a new relationship between the federal and state governments. One that would have been very difficult to anticipate, but one that we now find ourselves in and maybe when it begins to affect policy.


DK:     Yeah, I think that’s right. It is affecting policy in different ways. Two different points that I think we need to make here. One is that we have this increasing interconnection on everything to the point that it’s very difficult for anybody to try to decide what it is a policy ought to be, but at the same time a rising role for the states because as the federal government is essentially become hamstrung in being able to do much of anything. So much of the policy initiative has shifted to state governments and I think that is one of the great and so far, I think mostly undiscovered truths to what has happened in the last decade. But the other thing is that as the states have become more of the center of policy, we also see that there are great differences developing between the states on how that policy ought to work. It’s happened in environmental policy with California setting a very aggressive standards that essentially are becoming the ways in which national policy is being shaped. But at the same time, we have tremendous pushback from other governments other state governments that against now only the California exaction of domestic policy, but also the big battles over issues increasingly of social policy like abortion. And here there’s in that second piece that increasing differences among the states is a profound paradox that is developing as well with the battle over abortion having been fought for a generation and finally having Rowe v Wade and the mind of the conservatives being unwound having the Supreme Court deciding that there is no national right to privacy inherit abortion questions pushing the decisions back to the states. The states beginning then to try to shape their own policies, but then having those policies now being evolving to the point where some states are saying that what they are doing at the state level ought to become national policies. 


            The argument about the evolving power of the states now evolving into a question where the argument is some states are saying what they are doing ought to become national policy so it’s turning the whole argument on its head and turning the argument on its head obviously for matters of politics which are always the case here, but then more fundamentally the big question about how the balance of power ought to go. And I think what is happening is that instead of what was a kind of top-down strategy of federalism back in the Johnson administration for example with the war on poverty where the federal government was clearly in the driver’s seat. We are shifting now I think very clearly to a position where the state governments are in the driver’s seat and the state governments are defining national policy. And that’s been evolving I think over the last decade is the kind of sleeper trend that is going on, but one that is terribly important I think that we pay very careful attention to. And I think that because federalism often doesn’t get much attention and because the separate and independent role of the states as entities often don’t get much attention either. This really is a sleeper issue in domestic policy that I think demands much more careful attention here.


            (TM): 13:07


Ed:      Now I wonder abortion is of course an excellent example of a very high profile one that has also been affected by the ability of citizens to run initiatives and that sort of thing so bring in another level of governmental assertion there I guess on the part of citizens in states where they can put that on a ballot. You mentioned environmental law and particularly the regulation of automobile emissions and that sort of thing in California. Are there other policy issues that you think are shifting to states and away from the federal government?


DK:     I think that we have issues on homelessness that I think have come tremendously important in many communities but where we have the question about what to do about what’s becoming an increasingly important issue for many, many, many communities and the federal government has some policies and is providing some money. But where the big issues I think the big strategies are being developed in the states and are being developed in local governments and creating often many cases tensions between the state governments and local governments. Where California is providing, for example, a lot of money to local governments, but putting requirements on the way in which that money is being spent in ways that local governments are bursting about. In Texas here where I am sitting, the there are local communities that are in some cases trying very hard with some innovative strategies to try to reduce homelessness. Houston, for example, has reduced homelessness by like 64% in the last decade, but constantly complaining about the restraints that the state government puts on them in being able to make that happen. So, we see that issue developing. I think we see issues that have to do with transportation policy which I think increasingly has become state centered, but which have to do with the balance of power between those who want to try to build more highways and those engaged in more rapid transit so we have that as a big issue. 


            We see continuing competition among the states on economic development questions both in the famous battle about whether or not that the California or the Texas strategy will win in the long run, but also the competition among the states to provide tax breaks for and their competition for jobs and to try to develop the economy. If you look across the board, you can see that the states are becoming the place where these issues are being thought out. Instead of what is happening at the federal government where people are just fighting, the issues are being fought out and resolved in many cases in different ways in state governments, but being resolved at the state level.


Ed:      So, it does sound like you are describing a nation where the center of domestic policy is becoming more and more the states and maybe that’s the Jeffersonian idea of the federal government ought to be there to guard the borders and deliver the mail. Is that where we are?


DK:     The guarding the border piece is one worth coming back to because to a surprising degree, the states are shaping that policy as well. But we are seeing I think a rebalancing and we are seeing the federal government in a position of writing lots of checks. But in terms of domestic policy, we see I think these battles centering in the states. Book bans and about what it is that ought to be taught and how it ought to be taught and we see as I mentioned this year is immigration. The fascinating question now being fought out not only in state governments, but also in the courts about where the power ought to rest. And the question about what it is that and who it is who ought to be setting that policy. We literally have a battle at the very bank of the Rio Grande in Texas about who ought to be able to string barbed wire and razor wire and whether or not the wire can be cut. The state of Texas is battling now with the federal government over whether or not the federal government was violating its powers by cutting razor wire that had been stretched across by the state government of Texas.


            We see battles back and forth on the issues of busing people from the border to other communities creating intergovernmental crises that otherwise might not have existed. We see the state of Texas string buoys across the border at the river and raising questions about international affairs where the state of Texas is reshaping the kind of policy that the United States and Mexico is having to deal with. And we even see some interesting intergovernmental battles where there are quiet disputes along the border between Texas and New Mexico on issues of immigration and whether or not that the somewhat more flexible in New Mexico ought to be visited upon the people in the state of Texas. So, we see that happening as well and we see some of those border disputes spilling over as well on issues of abortion. It turns out that the busiest abortion clinic in New Mexico is an Uber ride away from El Paso and so we have transportation strategies for abortion advocates trying to get people to El Paso where they can just take an Uber on a shirt ride across the border into New Mexico to receive abortions. And then efforts in some communities is to fight back against that to ban the transit of people seeking abortions on their roads across their borders as well so. We see state governments is taking a far stronger role in disputes between the states ending up being the locus where some of the important value judgements are being thought out.


            (TM): 19:09


Ed:      Yeah, one of those interesting areas of migration have been all the people who have been bussed to other cities. I’m here in Denver. It has become quite the crisis here I guess that is a somewhat overused word, but certainly in New York and Chicago local officials have beseeched the federal government to help them with this. So, it is an interesting way that it is spilled out and it is not simply a republican and democrat argument so much as it is one often with mayors. These are the governors and that sort of thing. With states is bigger players. That doesn’t necessarily mean legislatures, our principal audience, because during the pandemic we saw a lot of authority in the executive was it an emergency the governors had to make the decisions and it was often quite a bit of argument between legislatures and governors over that power and is this a larger shift of power from legislatures to governors or executive in general do you think?


DK:     Yeah, I think that if the big sleeper issue is has been the increasing role of the states in shaping domestic policy and if the way in which that’s shaking out has created important disputes among the states about how that ought to work. The even more subtle issue that is taking place is where within the states is that power being centered. And I think that what we are seeing is a reflection in real time at the state level about some of the bigger things that we hear rhetorically at the national level. There has been this question about the unitary executive and about how much power the executive ought to have. And there is this battle taking shape of course as we enter the national election about how much power the president ought to have. That question in many ways has been resolved because congress has proven to be incapable of doing almost anything on time and doing almost anything period. The way in which that is really shaking itself out more fundamentally is as the states have become more important in shaping domestic policy. There has been the question of where within the states that power is resting. And I think what we are seeing is legislatures to be sure having an important role and taking some policy actions, but it is the executive branch especially the governors who are in the ascendency. I think we see the ascendency of executive power in the states. You can look at it whether it’s in California with Governor Newsom and the kind of efforts that he is taking on from homelessness to even daring to debate Ron Desantis and then we have Ron Desantis and Greg Abbott on the other hand taking an exceptionally strong role. Not only personally in terms of the way in which they are shaking power out, but also the way the executive branch is that they head are reshaping policy whether it is in Florida the effort to try to rein in higher education to reshape the way in which that is working. We see it happening in immigration in Texas. We see it on the grassroots having to deal with a big battle over whether some states are simply not taking advantage of money the federal government is providing for everything from school lunches during the summer to the broader issues about social policy that where the federal government is making money available and some states are refusing to accept it. So it has to do with executive decisions that are shaping the way in which domestic policy in turn is being shaped and the legislators have an important role, but the kind of traditional role that has been taking place having to deal with managing the budgets and creating new programs has become relatively less important compared to the kinds of decisions that governors are making day after day after day in a way in which their executive branches, their departments are transforming policy in so many different ways.


Ed:      Well, I think it’s always difficult to look into a crystal ball and I’m not sure if we’ve looked into a crystal ball and Lyndon Johnson administration we would have accurately predicted where we are today. But nonetheless, I’m going to ask you to do just that and as we wrap up, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where you see the balance of federalism shifting in the next few decades.


DK:     That is a great question and the good thing is people probably will never remember what I say so I’m hoping to be able to hide behind some anonymity in that but I think a couple points. One is that this is I think one of the truly big questions that we are facing. The question particular about where the balance of power in American government is going to rest. I think as we engage in this big dispute and battle over the future of democracy in the country that is taking shape for the 2024 presidential election, we are not paying any attention at all to the question about how it is the power is flowing to the states and how states are going to use it. And that may very well have in the policy world far more impact than what people are recognizing. It’s the question about how the balance of power then between the states and local governments where most people do their business and get their services how that is going to shape and we see lots of conflicts shaping up between increasingly urbanized areas in particular and relatively conservative governors on the other hand which I think are going to be some of the great things that actually are going to shape the way in which domestic policy happens. I think that we are going to see a shift increasingly in power from the legislatures to governors because of the importance of trying to resolve some of these questions. I think we are going to see greater divisions between the states and how this shakes out so that the Ron Desantis and the Greg Abbotts of the world on the one side and the Governor Newsom’s on the other. I think are going to create what in many ways is going to be the fundamental area of dispute and contention in shaping policies and I think increasing inequalities among the states and how they approach these issues. 


            I think that as we look to the big questions about trust in government adamantly, I think that what we are doing is going down a road where it is going to be increasingly hard for the federal government to gain trust from anybody because of these disputes which I fear are only going to get worse. But where the traditional focus of trust in American government at the state and local level is going to be defined by the way in which service delivery happens and the way in which governments are seen as reflecting the views of their citizens and that big question having to deal with trust I think is going to be resolved then. I’ve been writing for a while about the issue of trust and I think we can figure out that trust is kind of a wholesale issue where at the national level it is big and it’s the thing everybody thinks about it and can we trust congress and trust the president, but ah can we trust government to do the right thing. It’s almost impossible to move that needle. But on the other hand, what we see is that at the retail level where citizens interact with government which means interacting primarily on their day to day lives with state and local governments that the trust increasingly depends on how well that interaction works. The big question about can we build trust in government, I think is going to be a question that will be resolved or not to which it is possible to attack it at the state and local level which as we think about the future of democracy it is pretty important, I think. And which I think is the real sleeper issue ultimately for the next few decades about how we are going to be able to resolve the kind of interaction between citizens and their expectations about what government ought to do. And on the other hand, the big question about the way in which state and local governments can manage to deliver services more effectively in ways that build that trust.


(TM): 27:24


Ed:      Well, I think that is a great place to leave it Don. And I thank you very much. I think everyone will find this a very illuminating conversation. Thank you and take care.


DK:     Well thanks so much. It has been great fun talking about this. And it is kind of fun to go about exploring the kinds of things that I think get nowhere near the attention that they need, but which are going to be shaping the way in which things really happen in this country so. Thanks so much for the chance for this conversation.


Ed:      I’ve been talking with Don Kettl an expert on federalism about the balance of power between the state and federal governments. Thanks for listening. 


            You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.