Do Conservatives Still Care About Federalism Now That Republicans Run the Federal Government?

After years of using cries of "federalism!" to challenge the Obama administration, the tone, predictably, has shifted to one of cooperation and opportunity.


Eric Boehm/Reason

For much of the past eight years, Republican governors argued in favor of giving states more control over policy-making, at least partially as a political strategy to oppose the Obama administration.

Along that road to federalism, though, a funny thing happened. Republicans won majorities in the U.S. House, then the Senate, and now control the White House.

Against that backdrop, is federalism still en vogue for Republicans?

The four GOP governors—Arizona's Doug Ducey, Kansas' Sam Brownback, Kentucky's Mett Bevin, and Wisconsin's Scott Walker—who addressed a crowd of mostly conservative activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday morning made the case that it is.

But the tone, predictably, has shifted from one of rebellion and opposition, to one of cooperation and opportunity.

"We may not get the same opportunity ever again, we can't squander it," said Ducey, referring to Republican control of not only Congress and the presidency, but to the historic levels of GOP control in state capitols from coast to coast.

"I am thrilled with this cabinet that president Trump has appointed," he said. "And even more so that there is a former governor, who can understand what red tape can do at the state level, in Mike Pence as vice president."

While all four governors offered praise for President Donald Trump's cabinet selections in general, each also singled out the appointment of Betsy DeVos to head the federal Department of Education, something they said could usher significant reforms to how school policy is handled. Devos has been an outspoken advocate for school choice and charter schools, and became a lightning rod for criticism from teachers' unions during her confirmation hearings.

"I called Betsy Devos and I said 'been there, done that,'" said Walker, recalling fondly his clashes with public sector unions and progressive protestors in Wisconsin after the passage of a law in 2011 that stripped many public workers of their collective bargaining privileges. The Occupy movement, Walker said, didn't really start on Wall Street, "but on my streets" in Madison, Wisconsin.

Walker also praised Trump's selection of Scott Pruitt as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and argued that states should play a bigger role in setting environmental policy.

"My hope would be that this Congress would work with the president and the administration to reorganize—and not just reorganize the existing structures, but send more of it back to the states," Walker said. "The EPA, in my opinion, states can do that better. Let states handle that."

Bevin, of Kentucky, compared the EPA to Frankenstein's monster—both were created with noble intentions, but have turned on their creators, he offered—and echoed Walker's call to let the states handle environmental policy on their own.

"Nobody wants you to drink dirty water or breathe dirty air. There's not a state, Democratic or Republican alike, that could not manage this and would not be incentivized to manage this at the state level," he said.

Local control of government policy is no guarantee of liberty, of course, and any appeal to federalism made by the chief executive of a state government is necessarily, on some level, self-serving. Governors have a strong incentive to push back against the federal government to let them make more decisions,

Still, as Ducey pointed out on Thursday, there's an element of competition that exists between states but is absent at the federal level. States that make good policy choices can attract businesses and people, while one-size-fits-all federal policy is rarely good (or bad) for everyone.

It's a point that Walker—fresh off an unsuccessful presidential run and gearing up for a likely re-election campaign in Wisconsin in 2018—illustrated with a move that smacked of a campaign stump speech. Pulling a dollar out of his pocket, and asking the assembled crowd to do the same, he asked whether they would "rather send it to Washington, where you get pennies on the dollar back, or would you rather keep it back in your local community and your states, where you can fix your roads and your bridges?"

The choice to keep the dollar in one's own pocket, notably, was not given.