Weekly Column by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Federalism

For the week of January 17, 2005

Posted on January 14, 2005

Recently I had the opportunity to deliver the keynote address at the National Council of County Association Executives' annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The audience was made up of 100 executive directors and presidents of county associations from across the country, including Tennessee. The topic of discussion was federalism. I believe our nation is at its best when action is taken, not in Washington, D.C., but community by community. In this Congress, I hope we can do a better job of making sure that the federal government carefully considers the consequences of preempting state authority and only does so when absolutely necessary. I also hope the federal government will pick up the tab for its costly new ideas and pay for its mistakes. There are several ominous trends to protecting federalism that I have observed. One is the federal courts. We must look for ways to reign in the federal judiciary, both in its encroachment on federal legislative tasks and on policies traditionally reserved to states. Another problem is sometimes Congress. The federal government often burdens state and local governments with new well-intentioned proposals or when its own policies fail. Several examples of this are: Our country's immigration policy. Congress has failed to adequately address illegal immigrants, which means unloading security, health and education costs on states and local governments. Our country's health care policy. Congress has also failed to address the problems created by the rising costs of health care. Programs such as Medicaid will become more and more expensive for states to the detriment of education, emergency services, and other vital state and local functions. And unfunded federal mandates. Storm water runoff regulations and changes in voting procedures are explicit unfunded mandates. These are mandates to states and local governments to take an action or implement a new program without providing the necessary funding to see it through. There are other kinds of unfunded mandates that are more subtle, however, such as a permanent Internet tax moratorium. While there are trends of concern, I have also been encouraged by several solutions I've seen to preserve federalism. The Internet tax compromise. State and local governments and the telecommunications industry are working together to resolve the Internet access tax issue and present a long term solution to Congress. Funding. The best solution to avoiding unfunded mandates is for Congress to pay for the costs it creates either intentionally or unintentionally. President Bush has set a good example. He has dramatically reformed elementary education and is paying the bill. Under President Bush, spending on K-12 education has increased 36 percent. Drivers Licenses. In implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Congress needed to address concerns that terrorists might be able to fraudulently obtain or duplicate drivers licenses. Congress has assured that state and local governments will be involved in possible changes and determining the cost. Congress should pay that cost. During the 109th Congress, I can be a Paul Revere, and I can wave the lantern of federalism, which I intend to do as the Senate debates conflicting principles, but it is also up to state and local officials to be the Minutemen and Minutewomen that let members of Congress know just how important strong local and state governments are.