We often think of government bureaucracy as a force of stasis, but it is unlikely to promote stability. At all levels, government administrative organs have a way of growing, absorbing increasing levels of resources and constricting private activity by imposing increasingly complex rules. A large administrative apparatus tends to calcify the economy, undermining growth or even a sustained level of economic activity. The negative consequences of the administrative state were treated twice on this blog last year.
Federalism, on the other hand, is usually viewed as a check on federal power relative to state governments. That was the perspective of “Nullifying the Federal Blob” last year on SCC. However, in “The Rise of Executive Federalism“, Michael S. Greve discusses forms of federalism that can serve as adjuncts or even alternatives to the exercise of federal legislative power. First, he discusses “cooperative federalism”, whereby lower levels of government receive federal funds and in turn administer federal programs:
“With very few exceptions…, virtually all federal domestic programs are administered by state and local governments, often under one of over 1,100 federal funding statutes (such as Medicaid or NCLB). Since its inception under the New Deal, this ‘cooperative’ federalism has proven stupendously successful in doing what it was supposed to do: expand government at all levels.“
Greve draws a connection between political and economic developments over recent decades, the coincident decline of cooperative federalism and the rise of a more aggressive “executive federalism”. These developments include constraints on funding at both the federal and state levels, a decline in the willingness of states to cooperate on certain programs, and a divided Congress. No funding, no federal-state cooperation and no federal legislative direction leaves a vacuum to be filled by federal executive initiative:
“Thus, to make federal programs ‘work’ under current conditions, agencies rewrite statutes, issue expansive waivers, and negotiate deals with individual states on a one-off basis. That is how the ACA is being ‘administered.’ That is how Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell is trying to expand Medicaid. That is how No Child Left Behind is run. And that is how Environmental Protection Agency is trying to impose its Clean Power Plan: ‘stakeholder meetings’ and assurances of regulatory forbearance for cooperating states; unveiled threats against holdout states. This brand of federalism knows neither statutory compliance nor even administrative regularity. It is executive federalism.“
It does not bode well that this perverse form of federalism “is robust to partisan politics.” Greve notes that certain aspects of executive federalism were initiated by the Reagan Administration.
Greve’s advice on combating this trend is to make federalism “less cooperative, one program at a time.” While he’s a little short on specifics, he advises that initiatives such as block grants to states are likely to be counterproductive in restoring traditional federalism. One point on which I part company with Greve is his disparaging reference to “state’s rights” as a battle of “yesterday”. I suspect his underlying objection (which I do not share) is drug legalization at the state level, or any other measure that he might find morally objectionable. Otherwise, I have no issue with what I take to be his favored approach, which seems to involve any assault on the exercise of federal administrative power and rule-making, whether that is through the courts or the exercise of nullification by the states. It is promising that so many states are resisting the imposition of additional administrative and funding burdens attendant to expansive federal sweeteners and control.