Returning power to states won't solve everything



WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Budget Office has raised a question about whether the states are capable of providing enough jobs to meet the requirements of the welfare reform plan being pushed through the House of Representatives by the Republicans.

What needs to be asked, however, is the much broader question of whether the mad rush to empower the states makes any sense at all.

The Republicans obviously believe there is political gold in returning authority to the states. That is why there are so many areas in which they want to replace federal programs with block grants. The voters, they believe, will buy the argument that state and local governments know better than the federal government what their constituents need.

Opinion polls and the election results of Nov. 8 suggest the Republicans are right about the politics. The hostility to the federal government is in a class by itself. So the craze for returning power to the states is now being expressed to one degree or another not just on Capitol Hill but by all of the potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole even runs around telling everyone that he carries a copy of the 10th Amendment in his jacket pocket. That is the one, of course, that specifies that powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution "are reserved to the states."

But there are some questions that are being given scant attention.

First, is it necessarily true that a state or local bureaucracy is more efficient and effective in delivering services than the federal bureaucracy?

That may well be the case with some programs, but nobody really knows, for example, that 50 different state programs for school lunches would be more efficient than the one in place now. The Republicans like to suggest a nostalgic picture of Americans reaching some town meeting consensus on how to provide welfare benefits to their neighbors in distress. That's an attractive notion, but, except in the movies, it doesn't really happen that way.

We also need to ask whether governors are necessarily wiser in knowing what their constituents need.

There are, to be sure, some outstanding governors of both parties who have some innovative ideas for running educational, child nutrition or welfare programs. And they should be given opportunities to demonstrate that ability. But there are also some governors who are political hacks no more capable than many members of Congress of making such decisions or fashioning such programs. Let's get real here. Albany and Lansing and Boise and Tallahassee are not always centers of great wisdom.

Finally, we need to remember why so many of these programs had to be created at the federal level in the first place.

The answer is simply because the needs of many Americans were not being met by local and state officials because those Americans lacked the political clout to demand attention. The best example, of course, was the way blacks were treated in the South before the civil rights movement and -- more to the point -- pTC the Voting Rights Act 30 years ago that gave them the muscle to demand attention from local and state officials.

The federal government has always been the balancing agent in our society -- the level of government charged with seeing to it that those basic guarantees in the Constitution would be realities for everyone no matter how powerless and inarticulate, not just those in the decision-making majority.

The Democrats are trying to depict the Republican programs for such programs as school lunches and welfare as a mean-spirited attempt to realize savings that then would be diverted to the affluent in the form of tax relief. They are playing the same kind of politics of exaggeration that the Republicans practice with their mindless assault on the federal bureaucracy.

But even if the Republicans are given credit for decent motives, they have not yet produced the evidence that the answers to social problems necessarily can be found in the statehouses. It is not that simple.

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