Constitutional Federalism Beats Feds’ Bribery of the States

Almost five years ago the final Common Core national standards were published. These national standards epitomize government that has grown beyond all constitutional bounds. As elected officials learned more about the “voluntary” standards, the less they liked, and efforts to reverse course are underway in the states as well as Congress.

Certainly, federal overreach is nothing new in education, but in recent years as Washington politicians have extended the tentacles of government even more into our daily lives, Americans are literally fed up. A case in point is James L. Buckley’s recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

Before the newly elected members of Congress become contaminated by the prevailing congressional culture, they should consider a reform that would achieve a broader range of benefits than any other they might embrace: dismantling the more than 1,100 grants-in-aid programs that spend one-sixth of the federal budget on matters that are the exclusive business of state and local governments. ...

Congress finds the authority to enact those programs in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution’s general-welfare clause in Steward Machine Co. v. Davis (1937). More recently, in the court’s 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius decision upholding the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Congress may use federal funds to “induce the States to adopt policies that the Federal Government itself could not impose,” so long as participation by the states is voluntary. To put it another way, Congress is licensed to dabble in areas in which it is forbidden to act, which it does by bribing the states to adopt Congress’s approaches to problems that are the states’ exclusive responsibility.

Buckley aptly describes the substantial added costs of all that extra federal meddling, but the real cost is incalculable:

Finally, and of prime importance, those programs have subverted the Constitution’s federalism, its division of federal and state responsibilities, that was intended to prevent a concentration of power in a central government that could threaten individual liberties. ...

There is only one way to resolve the problems that have resulted from Congress’s addiction to grants-in-aid programs, and that is to terminate all of them. They must all go because none is free of the added costs described above. ...

Yet because federal transfers now constitute about 30% of the states’ revenues, Congress cannot cut off the funds overnight. Therefore, it should terminate the programs by converting all the grants the states and localities are currently relying on into single, no-strings-attached block grants, one for each state, that would be phased out over six years. That would allow Congress and the states the time to adjust their respective tax codes to accommodate the successive reductions in the federal transfers.

In the end, Washington does not know best—that’s why it’s best to keep the federal government confined to its constitutional limits.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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