- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

Despite the nearly pathological attentiveness to federal policy that is part of the warp and woof of living and working in Washington, it may be helpful for those in the policy arena to remain cognizant that most of America still understands that the governments closest to them — state and local governments — do most of the real work. This understanding helps explain why, in general, there is both limited awareness of the federal government and limited attention paid to the endless, seemingly monotonic policy debates that are a fixture within the Beltway.

For example, we routinely suffer through commentary about the unremarkable fact that few people can identify their congressman or senator or the secretary of HUD (think for a minute) or whatever. What such parlor games miss, of course, is the reality that most people are skeptical of the federal government’s ability to get much done. In an effort to quantify the disconnect between the egomania of D.C. and the reality of day-to-day America, we asked about that in the most recent edition of The American Survey (conducted Jan. 15 to Jan. 25, 2004, nationwide among 800 registered voters, margin of error 3.5 percent). As the chart shows, only about one-quarter (27 percent) of the respondents think that the federal government gets more done than its partners in the federal system. By contrast, more than two-thirds (68 percent) think that state and local governments accomplish more.

In addition to placing third (of three) in the effectiveness contest, the federal government scored behind the states in the empathy portion of the proceedings. More than half the respondents think that their state governments care more about the problems that affect them personally than do the president and Congress.Of more concern to fans of D.C. is that this sentiment is particularly strongamong youngervoters, who split 56 percent to 33 percent on the state side.

At the same time, the public seems to clearly demarcate issues between the federal government and state governments. For instance, when we asked who should take the lead on issues like education, crime and highways, respondents said overwhelmingly that they prefer states to take the lead (which, at least with respect to highways, suggests that the very idea of federal funding mightbeonveryshaky ground). On other issues — health care and the environment — respondents indicated that they want the federal government to take the lead. Only in the area of jobs and the economy was there some split (56 -43 percent in favor of the federal government). We suspect that this is an artifact of the respondents’ desire for everyone to work on jobs and the economy.

Finally, it would be wrong to think that the enthusiasm for state government obscures voters’ awareness of the warts. Right now, numerous states are struggling through budget difficulties. Even Virginia, long among the most fiscally conservative states, is considering a massive tax increase. We asked about whether the budget deficits faced by states occur because they spend too much or collect too little tax revenue. The answer ran about 6 to 1 that the budget problems are caused by excessive spending. This answer is probably illuminative of attitudes toward government in general.

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