Republicans at Williamsburg

November 23, 1994

Comedian Jay Leno joked that the meeting of Republican governors in Williamsburg was appropriate since they "are trying to return to the 17th century." More like the 18th. The GOP contingent called for a modern form of original, constitutional federalism, in which each governor is free to do as he or she pleases, within reasonable limits, to solve their states' problems and to avoid unwanted obligations imposed on them by Congress.

The message of this month's voting is that Americans want closer-to-home decision-making. Republican candidates for Congress pledged to downsize "Washington," and they took over Congress for the first time in 40 years. But they did so with only slightly more than half the votes cast. Republican gubernatorial candidates, though, in winning a majority of statehouses for the first time in 24 years, got 54 to 55 percent of the two-party vote, and won control of 30 states with 70 percent of the U.S. population.

So Republican members of Congress owe Republican governors respect. These governors are a varied lot, but they more or less agree on wanting fewer unfunded mandates from Congress, less federal taxation, spending and borrowing and fewer restrictions on state activity imposed by Congress, by the executive branch, including regulatory agencies, and by the courts. Former Attorney General William Barr told the governors in Williamsburg that litigation aimed at reviving the long dormant 10th Amendment ("powers not delegated to the United States. . . are reserved to the States") would find many sympathetic Reagan-Bush judges.

On the eve of the 21st century, it is unrealistic to think America can go "home" to 18th (or even 19th) century federalism, but obviously American voters want something different than the end game of the welfare/national security state that was produced by the Depression and a global war and their aftermaths. At least, they think they do. They may find out they're wrong, but the only way to find out is to try something new (or old). The best laboratories for experiment, in the 1990s as in the 1790s, are the states, under the umbrella of the Constitution.

A liberal Democrat like Paris Glendening and a conservative Republican like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin may have quite different ideas about, say, welfare reform. Both should be encouraged to try out those ideas. If one proves better, other states can respond accordingly.

Sen. Robert Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich pledged yesterday in Williamsburg to begin the "historic" returning of power to the states. You can't return too much, of course, or return the wrong things, or do it too fast. But doing a lot, with all deliberate speed, is the mandate of the times. Those who disagree have another election in two years in which to make their case.

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