For decades, federalism was a boring subject that, whenever it came up, inspired pundits to dust off their copy of The Federalist Papers and motivated readers to rush off to the sports section. Yet the issue holds our interest today, for three reasons.
First, governors are making news as they besiege Washington with their demands for more autonomy. Republican chief executives, filled with federalist fervor, now preside over 30 capitals with 72% of the U.S. population, including eight of the nine largest states. Although some GOP governors, such as New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, are "liberal" on social issues such as abortion, almost all are fiscal conservatives; even California's Pete Wilson has belatedly gotten in on the tax-cutting act. The new gubernatorial clout was on display when the "unfunded mandates" bill passed the Senate 86-10 and the House 360-74. Soon, Washington pols will no longer be able to take credit for "solving" problems ranging from water pollution to voter registration while sticking states with the bill.
The biggest issue on the table is welfare reform. As the Democratic chairman of the National Governors Assn., Vermont's Howard Dean, observed, the only debate now is over the degree of decentralization. Whether or not activist governors such as Wisconsin Republican Tommy Thompson succeed in their campaign to "block grant" 350 federal social programs into lump-sum payments, the new states' rights movement will gain momentum.
Which leads to the second reason that things are changing: The states are changing. From the 1930s to the '60s, people believed that America's greatest domestic objectives--from Keynesian pump-priming to interstate highways and integration--could be fulfilled only from Washington. The persuasiveness of that argument diminished in the '70s; inflation, gas lines and "malaise" seemed to be caused, not cured, by the feds. Moreover, the states are no longer the bastions of reaction they had been before the Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" decisions of 1962-64. These rulings ended gerrymanders that had reinforced rural power to the detriment of urban power. The 1965 Voting Rights Act opened up the franchise to minorities. Today, 17 African Americans represent congressional districts in the Old Confederacy. Also, states have "professionalized" their governments: Almost as many graduates of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, for example, work for state and local government as go to Washington. This bureaucrat diffusion is a two-edged sword, but at least the feds can no longer bedazzle and befuddle with the latest technocratic jargon.
Third, what centralized, monopolistic institution faces a bright future in the Information Age? If knowledge is power, then ordinary people are becoming a lot more powerful. C-SPAN has pierced the haze of smoke-filled rooms, revealing federal officials in all their . . . er, glory. Soon, all congressional proceedings will be on-line; everyone calling in to radio talk shows will have been able to scrutinize, line by line, each piece of Washington legislation, looking for outrages.
The demonopolization of information has vast consequences. Centuries ago, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had the idea that all people--not just priests--should be able to read the Bible. They translated Scripture into English, so that even the humble farm boy could know the Word of God directly. Johann Gutenberg provided the technical support--movable type. The result was the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. In the late 20th Century, as in the late 15th Century, cutting-edge technology accelerates the overthrow of established authority.
Today, devolution is less traumatic than revolution. Yet if everyone is empowered to think for himself or herself, then the paternalistic operating system of Big Government, run from the Washington mainframe, is headed for a crash. As the Beltway braces for impact, Republicans who made their careers in D.C. have concluded that it's time to bail out. Dick Cheney and Jack Kemp, for example, have removed themselves from the 1996 presidential race. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, running as an outsider, scores points with grass-roots activists when he says of Congress, "Cut their pay and send them home." Meanwhile, GOP governors, from Whitman to Thompson to Wilson, have figured out that there are votes in solving problems that Washington made worse. The final irony of the federalist wave may be that it washes one of these new governors back to Washington, into the White House.