- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

New Federalism isn’t that “new” anymore, but in the cacophony of today’s policy debate its voice has been unfortunately muted. It’s time for someone to give the idea a louder megaphone.

Shifting power back to states or using local governments to test innovative new policies has been around in one form or another as a reaction to Washington-centric New Deal liberalism for more than a half-century. Occasionally, however, changes in political conditions or the emergence of new actors on the government stage ripen a powerful idea. After several years of lying fallow, federalism is ready for a new political harvest. Republicans in particular, in search of new ideas to rebuild their political brand, may want to reprise the concept not only as a way to better solve problems and help people, but also as a tactic to rebuild to rebuild an agenda.

Over the past three decades, interest in New Federalism has ebbed and flowed, manifesting itself in different ways. For example, both Presidents Nixon and Reagan tried to flow money to states by expanding the use of block grants. More recently, after Republicans took control of Congress following the 1994 election, then-Republican governors like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan worked with President Clinton (also a former governor), and Republican congressional leaders to produce historic welfare reform, giving states more flexibility in running these programs.

But ironically, following the 2000 election, after another former governor — George W. Bush — won the White House and his party retained Congress, New Federalism moved into a period of radio silence in Washington. At a time when the stars seemed aligned for the concept to reach its zenith, the notion of devolving money, power and influence out of Washington fell into a rhetorical black hole.

Maybe Republicans were too busy pulling the levers of power in Washington, and letting states experiment faded due to benign neglect. Perhaps the prospect of unified control of the legislative and executive branches of government in Washington for the first time in nearly a half-century was a prize too precious to share. Whatever the reasons, New Federalism withered on the vine over the last several years and it’s time to breathe new life into the concept.

First of all it’s a conservative concept with broad popular appeal, even among swing voters. Surveys indicate the idea of devolving power out of Washington garners strong support across the political spectrum. A recent Dutko Worldwide poll asked if voters preferred more power to state and local governments to make policy decisions and develop their own programs or would they rather have more centralized Washington decisionmaking. Overall a robust 74 percent chose empowering states, while only about 1 in 5 preferred more Washington control. And an equally healthy proportion of self-identified moderates (73 percent) and independents (74 percent) supported devolving power outside the Beltway.

Second, it’s a way to assemble new proposals when the factory of ideas looks like it has undergone massive layoffs. Many analysts believe Republicans need to restock the shelves of their policy storehouse — New Federalism offers pallets of new initiatives in areas such as education, health care and the environment.

Lawmakers interested in generating New Federalism ideas will find a willing partner in Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Mr. Perdue is reinvigorating RGA’s policy shop, an entity nearly shut down in the last several years. “He intends to breathe new life in to the role of governors in leading and setting the idea agenda,” a close associate of his told me this week.

Third, it provides Republicans with a popular issue to distinguish themselves from the congressional Democrats. Liberals in Congress will object to providing states with more flexibility and choices. They are hardwired to adopt a Washington-knows-best attitude and this notion completely turns that approach on its face.

At a time when Republicans are on the prowl for creative policy proposals, tapping into the public’s desire for more local control over issues represents a major political trophy. Linking arms with governors, and helping them devolve money, power and influence out of Washington is a winning tactic for the Republican Party. Republicans should raise their voices, along with governors to make sure decision makers outside the Beltway’s amen chorus of liberal Democrats shape and control more government programs.

Reprising new federalism in word and deed is a way to do just that.

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