Skeptical on Local Control

ONE of the themes of debate in Congress of late has been ``return to local control.'' The other day a colleague confronted a Republican presidential candidate in New Hampshire who was ready to turn over just about everything except the pursuit of the Colombian drug cartels to the local sheriff.

Now wait just a doggone minute. The Constitution has some things to say about responsibilities of the federal government and of the states, but we have met, in our day, a fair number of local politicians and can attest that they are not all ready for prime time.

The value of ``local control'' is invoked selectively - to argue for string-free block grants for welfare or law enforcement, for instance.

But when the issue is prison building, or litigation reform, suddenly the erstwhile partisans of ``local control'' seem to feel that Uncle Sam knows best, and federal standards are needed. In the case of school lunches and food assistance, Congress is offering states ``local control'' they never sought.

The states vary widely in size, wealth, complexity, and general usefulness as microcosms for the country as a whole. They certainly are useful as laboratories for new ideas, as was seen in the national health-care debate. The feeling that there was still much to be learned from different state-level experiments probably helped lessen the perceived urgency of a health-care ``crisis'' to be dealt with at a federal level.

The list of national political figures, past and present, who started out in state or local government is almost endless: It includes Abraham Lincoln, who served in the Illinois State Legislature, and Theodore Roosevelt, who served as New York City police commissioner.

Local officials are often better able than Washington bureaucrats to assess local needs. And the 1994 election results certainly reflected a strong feeling that Washington was too much entangled with people's lives.

But sometimes local control is the problem. Local control kept millions of Southerners disenfranchised and largely shut out of the economy for decades after Reconstruction. That began to change when it was, in effect, decided that the United States was one nation, with a single standard for citizenship.

No wonder there is some skepticism about ``local control.''

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