Thursday, January 05, 2006

Katrina Federalism

This week begins the Winter term of programming at the Rockefeller Center. We are pleased to feature Nan Aron, President of the Alliance for Justice, and Congressman Artur Davis (D-AL) among our public events. The Winter Newsletter is also online. Here is my Direct Line column, with links where appropriate:

Like many people safely removed from the events, I watched the images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and wondered how every layer of government could appear to have failed so resoundingly in serving the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Many answers to the question of "What went wrong?" have suggested that an important part of the explanation is, in fact, that we have a layered government—our federalist system in which sovereignty is shared among the national, state, and local levels. As of this writing, a Google search for "Katrina federalism" generates over 250,000 results.

We should not take such charges lightly. Along with the separation of powers among the three branches of government and explicit protections for civil rights, federalism is one of the key elements of our constitutional republic. The presence of a multi-layered government is a strong impediment to abuses of freedom by any one of those layers. If breakdowns like the one we witnessed in September are symptomatic of federalist systems, then the greater centralization—less federalism—needed to protect the welfare of citizens would come at the high price of weaker protection of individual liberties.

I do not believe that federalism is an important explanation for the failures of government in the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina. The underlying problem is a bloated government generally disdainful of both entrepreneurship and accountability at every level. In this case, the presence of multiple layers of government compounded the critical lack of communication and coordination that was also present in each separate layer of government.

In February 1962, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller delivered the Godkin lectures at Harvard on "The Future of Federalism," which were subsequently published in a book of the same name. He identified three pervasive attitudes that were damaging to the process of government in his era: political aloofness, in which the need to engage in active and aggressive political debate is evaded by a condescension and contempt for political life; an obsession with political labels, which substitute slogan for thought and the false label for the serious goal; and a timidity in the exercise of political leadership, particularly at the state level of government.

He could have been describing equally well the obstacles to effective government today, and until those obstacles are overcome, our society is susceptible to continued breakdown of government in the most critical times. The policy response to Hurricane Katrina should not be less federalism, but better federalism—more reliance on elected rather than appointed officials to make decisions and implement policy and greater citizen participation in the political process. Elections and the people who stand for them matter. They bring with them the accountability and entrepreneurship that are required to provide the solutions to deal better with the challenges we face, both natural and man-made.

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Bruce Wilder said...

We are a having a natural experiment in the United States. First, we have a competent, well-educated, ambitious, caring figure administered the government as President for 8 years, and, then we have an incompetent, lazy, incurious fool lead the government for eight years.

After only five years experience with President number two, I am ready to conclude that it matters who is President. We have a corrupt government, led by an inarticulate and not very bright man, and things are not going well. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Even though there is room for significant improvement on Katrina, it could have been a lot worse. Katrina also illustrates that the press may be working okay in the U.S.

GWB may need more genuinely "urban" people in his administration. Cheney is from Wyoming, which is not exactly comparable to New Orleans or other urban areas. Palo Alto is not exactly urban either. A lot of the FEMA people were not from major metro areas and did not have deep or broad experience in markets such as LA, Detroit, or NYC.

Tom C said...

I think the problems are pretty subtle here. Let me give an example. As a member of a local school board in Vermont, I can tell you that our state is in the end stages of a 20-year transfer of authority from the local level to the state level. We are in an impossible situation now: all funding comes from the state, which is not enough to run a decent school, but all expenses are decided by the local board, except for special ed, (driven by Federal entitlement laws) which is now over 25% of our operating budget.

This is not "checks and balances"; this is lunacy. Now my illustrious governor wants to put price controls on the schools (just announced yesterday) and blames local school boards for spending too much. Predictably. But he can't stop us, he can only complain or underfund.

The conclusion is that higher levels of government constantly do power and money grabs on lower levels, unless the judiciary is vigilant. My guess is that the state and local governments in Louisiana and New Orleans had little or no authority or funding to do what you'd think they should do, and waiting for funding and permission, every step of the way, is the real issue.

Aaron said...

I completely agree with your Katrina discussion along with federalism. If the State of Louisiana had taken more responsibility and the U.S. Federal government been less culpable for emergency response, the results would have been much better.

I hope that the confirmation of Alito will eventually give a voice to greater federalism in our country and less centralism in Washington D.C. I hope issues regarding the 10th Amendment will be revisited.

Has anyone given thought to catastrophes like the imminent entitlement issues surrounding Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? I am certain they can be best handled at the state level too.