Distorting federalism

August 19, 1993

"I miss you. I miss this," President Clinton, a 12-year veteran of the National Governors' Association, told his former colleagues in convention Monday in Tulsa. "I miss the way we make decisions. I miss the heart and soul and fabric of life that was a part of every day when I got up for work at the state capital."

But now he is in Washington, and to many governors that means he has become part of their problem. The federal government requires state governments to take actions that are not fully federally funded. The burden falls on governors to find the money, either by taxing or cutting other programs. It is not just Bill Clinton, and it is not just presidents. Congress is as much or more to blame for this distorted federalism. It's "Washington." A few years ago the governor of Louisiana, Buddy Roemer, berated the federal establishment for this passing the buck -- or, rather, passing no bucks. "Quit mandating what Louisiana has to do," he said. "If you're not going to provide us the money, let us decide."

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the field of health care for the poor. Medicaid is a crushing burden on states. States now spend more on this than on higher education. President Clinton said himself at the governors' convention that "state governments are literally being bankrupted by the rising costs of Medicaid." With this as an object lesson, many governors are leery of a new national health care plan written in Washington -- any plan, one written by Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force or by Republican members of Congress led by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island.

The governors fear they may end up having to pay for some, perhaps a lot, of any added costs to government of a new health care plan. Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida and Gov. Barbara Roberts of Oregon, both Democrats, said they were nervous about new obligations on them under a new law. Governor Roberts said the new plan should allow states "flexibility. . . . It's critical that we allow some inventiveness, some laboratories in the state for different ways to do things." She was speaking for many governors -- and she was right.

Bill Clinton is the most activist president in the White House in a generation -- maybe two generations. He has a Congress that has been frustrated by presidential vetoes and the threat of vetoes for a decade. This combination could lead to more mandates on the states rather than fewer. The former governor of Arkansas should keep his gubernatorial days as clearly in mind in Washington as they were when he visited his old friends in Tulsa -- not for nostalgia's sake but for their instructive value.

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