Commentary: The Constitution Had it Right

By: - September 24, 2007 12:00 am

When this nation was established some 230 years ago, our founders put in place a federalist system that divided power between states and the federal government.

Section 8 of the Constitution details the powers of the federal government, making clear that its primary role concerns national defense and foreign relations. The 10 th Amendment, which says “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” further restricts the federal government’s scope and essentially leaves responsibility for domestic issues to the states.

Throughout our history there has been a federalism cycle, where at times governors and states have provided national policy leadership and at other times that leadership has come from the president and Congress. Underlying this cycle, however, was a clear trend in the 20 th century toward increased federal involvement in U.S. domestic policy.

As we progress into the 21 st century, several factors suggest we may be coming full circle, with leadership on domestic issues swinging back to states. One factor is states’ leadership on major domestic policy challenges of the day, chief among them:

· How to provide health insurance for 47 million uninsured Americans while increasing health-care quality and controlling costs?

 · How to decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

 · How to make the entire U.S. education system world class in order to compete in the new knowledge-based world economy?

States are at the forefront of developing innovative solutions to these challenges. Note the recent explosion in state health-care reforms. Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont were the first to enact universal access and universal care programs that are being emulated nationwide.

Many states also are experimenting with employer and individual mandates to purchase health insurance as well as with connectors or alliances to match small businesses and individuals with insurance providers. Others are reforming their private insurance markets, working with providers to create affordable benefits packages and experimenting with quality improvement and measurement. Still others are initiating prevention and wellness programs and pay for performance. Overall, nearly 40 states have initiated health-care reforms, with many attempting to implement universal access or care for all children or for their entire populations.

States also are demonstrating leadership in education reform. Across the board, governors have made this a priority, fully understanding the only way America can compete in the global economy is by having a highly educated, highly skilled workforce equipped to drive innovation in the 21 st century. To achieve this, some states have focused on expanding early childhood education, initiating high school reform, and upgrading science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula. Others have concentrated on improving higher education, teacher quality and school choice. Regardless of their methods, governors understand that failure to raise our children’s achievement levels will ultimately be reflected in decreases in the real wages of American workers.

Energy policy is another area where governors are taking the lead. In governors’ 2007 State-of-the-State Addresses , 92 percent of states highlighted their efforts to address energy and environmental issues. Most governors focused on developing alternative sources of energy or on conservation. About half emphasized projects targeting pollution and cleanup, including reducing air pollution or greenhouse gases and cleaning up waterways. In addition, several states have joined in regional compacts-such as in the Northeast and West-to reduce greenhouse gases. This issue has now reached a tipping point in states, and action will only accelerate over the next few years.

Meanwhile, ongoing partisan wrangling in Washington has hindered the ability of Congress and the president to enact meaningful change on key domestic issues, such as renewal of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and immigration reform. As the 2008 elections loom, their reluctance to work on a bipartisan basis will only grow.

Another factor pointing to a shift in the balance of power is the federal government’s renewed focus on its responsibilities for national security and international trade. Global security issues, terrorism and political instability throughout the world necessitate federal-level problem-solving. The president and Congress also must contend with world economic growth that is putting pressure on commodity prices, which in turn will dramatically change the distribution of wealth in the global economy and increase trade tensions. The diversion of federal attention to these issues means that domestic policy increasingly will be left to state governments.

So it seems for the foreseeable future, the balance of power has reverted to the vision set forth by our Founding Fathers, and ultimately, the Constitution got it right: Domestic policy is again becoming the jurisdiction of the states.

Raymond C. Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Governors Association.

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