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Monday, September 11, 2017

Federal Decentralization and Federalism

One of the issues that my article on federal decentralization has to address is the relationship between federal decentralization and federalism.  Some countries that feature federal decentralization have viewed it as a substitute for federalism.  Rather than empowering local majorities through separate, decentralized sovereigns, the goal has been to empower local majorities through the same—yet decentralized—sovereign.  In the American constitutional experience, federal decentralization has served as a supplement to federalism rather than a substitute for it.  Rather than relying on state governments and citizens far from Washington to persuade, cajole and even coerce the federal government in Washington to protect local majorities, local majorities are instead empowered in the federal government rather than instead of the federal government.  Federal decentralization provides the voice that federalism cannot provide local majorities.  The distinctive diffusion of powers that federal decentralization produces also generates distinctive costs.

Federalism features many positive theories explaining how local majorities are meant to be sufficiently empowered.  Each of these accounts of federalism, though, inevitably limits local majorities because local majorities are distant from—and therefore more limited by—federal officials.  Citizens or state governments outside of Washington can try to influence their federal government directly, but when the federal government is distant that will be hard to achieve.  Citizens or state governments outside of Washington can buy influence inside of Washington, but that will be expensive to achieve.

Federal decentralization gives local majorities greater voice by making them neighbors of federal officials, rather than servants (in Heather Gerken’s compelling framing) to them.  Federal officials hear more and hear better about the concerns of locals once they live amongst them, and come to care more about addressing these concerns.  Local majorities also can become federal officials, rather than just neighbors influencing them.  The result is a class of federal and state officials with unique capacities to mediate between federal and state power and ensure that both are respected.  Many prominent elected officials—such as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy—had earlier and formative experiences in federally decentralized positions.   

Federal decentralization generates costs for federalism whether it succeeds or fails.  If it succeeds, federal decentralization can replace federalism.  There are reasons to doubt whether this would ever be absolute.  Labor markets are notably elastic, pulling and pushing talented people into new and different places as desirable employment opportunities exist.  If a location delivers significant policy returns, then that could encourage more regulation from that location of both a state and federal variety, and therefore enough employment opportunities to attract enough talent to staff both federal and state efforts.  Federal decentralization is also analytically distinct from federalism in important ways that would preclude one from ever perfectly substituting for the other.

Federalism remains far from a universal practice in constitutional design, and that is because of concerns that federalism diffuses power excessively.  Federal decentralization adds to that already substantial diffusion.  To design in a way to avoid that risk, only policy domains that do not suffer as much from diffusion can be federally decentralized.  Inter-branch relationships, for instance, can remain centralized.

Posted by David Fontana on September 11, 2017 at 02:18 PM | Permalink

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