266. "Shift Power, But Not to States," Opinion USA, USA TODAY, (May 25, 1995), p.13A.


"Devolution" is not exactly a household word. Pray it never will be.

If the large-scale transfer of monies and missions from Washington to 50 state capitals is a way to curb government, then copy machines are a way to cut paperwork. True, state governments, which have become popular since last year's sea change in Congress, are not completely without merit. They can experiment in various ways to end welfare and reduce health care costs, before the whole nation becomes committed to a new course.

Undoubtedly, that belief is behind Sen. Bob Packwood's welfare reform proposal being debated by the Senate Finance Committee this week, which would turn over $ 16.8 billion in block grants each year to states with almost no strings attached.

Furthermore, the states are closer to the people, at least in the narrow sense that citizens have to travel fewer miles to get to their state capital than to Washington. However, those who do make the voyage find it is no pilgrimage. By practically any measure the typical state government is even less responsive to its citizens than Washington. The major reason is that state legislatures are much less accountable than Congress and many are even more corrupt.

The problem starts with most state assembly members serving as part-timers. The standard length of a legislative session in New Mexico and Montana is 90 days every two years. Washington's legislature meets an average of 82.5 days per year, while Nevada's legislators are only paid for 60 days every two years.

State legislators are legally entitled to work at other paying jobs, and practically all do, including ones that entail representing industries the state governments are supposed to regulate. When I served as a staff director of a New York State Commission investigating nursing homes I learned that many members of New York's assembly were lawyers on retainers from the nursing-home lobby. They ended up rejecting most of the recommendations the commission made to clean up the industry in spite of rampant scandals headlined in the daily press.

In many state legislatures written records of votes are not kept, making it possible for legislators to vote for special interests, while informing the citizenry they voted in the public interest.

Members of Congress often dash from one bell to another (more than a thousand times a year) with little knowledge of what they are voting about. Instead members rely on huge staffs. In the states, legislatures typically have only minuscule staffs or none at all. In Rhode Island a new representative was dumbfounded when he discovered that one can find out which bill is up only two days before the vote, making proper preparation virtually impossible.

Outright corruption is far from unknown in Washington but distressingly rampant in the states. When the Maryland assembly allocates scholarships, many are given to children of politicians, their friends, and supporters. Arizonan legislators have been indicted for accepting bribes to support a gambling bill. When the FBI set up a sting in South Carolina, so many legislators showed up, they practically caused a traffic jam.

A comparison of federal and state agencies is revealing. Medicare (100% federal) shines in comparison to Medicaid (partly state-run). The IRS is a paragon of virtue when compared to state tax agencies. If you hate bureaucrats, shifting from Washington to the states will hardly spell relief. This should not come as a great surprise; after all, devolution is simply moving from one level of government to another, with little, if any, net reduction in government.

No, the solution is not to keep all of the public's business bottled up in Washington. But we may well be able to privatize some public programs. And state assemblies need to become much more accountable, and enact limits on lobbies and campaign contributions. But above all, we need to bring social programs close to the people, where they can see what their government does at the community level. How do we do that? By running more public programs as many public schools, our best hospitals, and numerous colleges are run now: by local boards, subject to federal guidelines and accounting. This is the way community-based organizations run economic development projects (e.g., launch a supermarket in a low-income area) and early anti-HIV intervention programs - both funded, but not managed, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Highly successful community programs have been killed by previous administrations that favored state block grants. The abandoned programs include neighborhood self-help programs and community anti-crime programs in which the federal government paid only for community organizers. These should be revived. Other programs could be delegated to communities working within federal guidelines. For example, local non-profits are ideally suited to generate community service jobs for those on welfare who often cannot find work in the private sector.

We should re-read the 10th Amendment, which declares that the powers not in the purview of the federal government ". . . are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." One never ceases to wonder at the wisdom of the Founders.

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