Power Heads Back to Beltway

1990s trend to give more decisionmaking authority to the states appears to be over.

If Washington's current attitude toward state and local governments were a television show, it might be called "Uncle Sam Knows Best."

That's because the early 1990s trend toward devolution - ceding of decisionmaking power to smaller political units - appears to have run its course. Instead of allowing states, counties, and cities more leeway to run their affairs, the nation's capital now appears intent on bringing much authority back within the Beltway.

Congress is considering at least a dozen major proposals, dealing with everything from tobacco sales to electricity regulation, that would centralize important economic and political decisions. Some say such preemption may be inevitable in today's fast-pace economy - but that doesn't mean state and local lawmakers approve of the overall trend.

"Counterdevolution raises the question, 'Are states really necessary?' " says Carl Tubbesing, National Conference of State Legislatures deputy executive director.

Not too long ago, the United States seemed to be in a political era when Washington would cheerfully give up some of its most cherished powers. The Republicans took over Congress and promised a New Federalism that would give the provinces and hinterlands a greater say in their own affairs.

Devolution did occur in certain areas, primarily those dealing with human services. The massive 1996 welfare-reform bill gave states unprecedented freedom to structure aid programs for their neediest citizens. Health care and environmental regulation became somewhat more state- and local-friendly. Congress passed an "unfunded mandate" bill that was intended to prevent Washington from blithely enacting legislation that costs states and localities money.

But even some GOP revolutionaries now appear to have learned the political truism that it's tough to let your own authority walk away unused. Congress has begun to reverse the devolution trend in two roughly defined areas: business and economic regulation and dangerous citizen behavior.

An example of the latter category, and a good example of the overall trend, is the current effort in Congress to establish a national legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 for drivers. Last month, the Senate voted to withhold federal transportation money from states that don't set such a low limit. Yet establishment of drunk-driving laws has long been a state prerogative. Even state lawmakers that have had their own emotional debates about the wisdom of the 0.08 limit resent the Senate's attempt to impose it.

Other top preemption proposals include prospective tobacco legislation, which would override state law in such areas as product liability and sales to minors, and electric-utility deregulation, which would impose a national solution in an area of deregulation many states are attempting on their own.

Federal mandates on crime

The juvenile crime bill now wending its way through Congress would force states to set minimum jail terms for underage criminals. It would also withhold grant money to states that do not agree to prosecute serious youth offenders as adults. Yet another bill would bar state and local governments from levying taxes on the sale of goods via the Internet. President Clinton, among others, says a moratorium on such taxation is necessary to nurture a powerful new means of communication. State and local authorities just think this means folks will buy things on their computers to avoid the sales taxes charged down at the local store.

The antifederalism trend can even be seen in the mundane act of naming an airport. The first bill Congress passed this year renamed Washington National Airport after former President Ronald Reagan. State and local officials had objected to the forced change on grounds that it would cost them money to make new signs and would confuse area residents and tourists.

"The airport is not a federal facility but is run locally and financed by the local taxpayers, who ought to have a say in the matter," said Rep. Robert Andrews (D) of New Jersey earlier this year on the floor of the House.

Why is this happening?

The reasons for the new counterdevolution push are many and varied. Technology has altered the way America does business, and as the Internet and cellular phones increasingly ignore state and local boundaries, political regulators struggle to catch up. In addition, some industries that have long been localized, such as banking and electricity production, are quickly becoming national.

"As banks and electric companies cross state lines, they have a strong interest in ensuring uniform taxes and regulations," says Frank Shaforth, director of policy and federal relations at the National League of Cities.

National politics has also changed. More congressional district races are competitive - and it costs more money to run. Much of that money comes from special interests searching for federal action on their problems, claim state and local government experts. That means pressure to preempt state solutions - pressure that lobbyists for state and local authorities have trouble counteracting.

An FCC lawyer once told Mr. Shaforth that telecommunications firms budget $20 million a year just to lobby his agency. "Give me $20 million and I'll come over and see you every day for the rest of my life," countered Shaforth.

Still, states and localities remain a powerful presence in Washington. As of this writing, the House was resisting a national blood-alcohol limit, partly on federalism grounds.

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