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A Primer on the New Federalism

A Primer on the New Federalism

Burton Yale Pines

As you may know, federalism has been the political principle upon which my nation has been organized and governed. My country is called, after all, the United States. This name reflects the fact that the various states united together to create a nation. When the states did this they gave some important powers to the new national government. But they also kept many powers for themselves. This arrangement, this division of powers, is known as the federal system.

This is not just some abstract political theory for professors and philosophers. The federal system has determined who has had power in the U.S. and has given a great deal of power to the states. This is a good idea because the states are much closer to the people than is the national government. Thus, the states are more responsive to the people. Giving great powers to the states also is a good idea because it recognizes the enormous diversity of the U.S. What is good for one section of the nation, after all, may not be good for all sections.

For America's first 150 years as a nation, the federal system was balanced and worked well. But things began changing in the 1930s and 1940s. The huge national economic programs during the Depression and the huge effort to fight World War II gave the national government great new powers. This weakened the federal system. What we saw in Washington was the growth of hundreds of new government agencies with huge new bureaucracies. These were unfriendly to the people, unsympathetic, unresponsive, and, of course, uncreative. At the same time, because so much power had shifted to Washington, Americans, and even state and local officials, began losing their confidence in their own ability to solve problems. They began looking to Washington for solutions for almost everything. This was something new in America-and something dangerous.

Ronald Reagan has reversed this. His policies have restored power to the states and cities, and reduced the power of the central government in Washington. Though state officials at first hesitated and were reluctant to accept this new power, now they are enthusiastic about it. Once again the states are the laboratories of new ideas. And great new ideas are coming from the states-in housing issues, education reform, help for the poor, and ways to clean the environment.

Restoring the balance to America's federal system is a great Reagan legacy.