MINOT, N.D. — "The U.S. has outgrown federalism," former Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl tells us.
Federalism was an organizing principle during the founding of our nation, which created a union of sovereign states that gave up a portion of that sovereignty to forge a union under the federal government. The constitutional foundation for federalism is the 10th Amendment, which states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Any authority not specifically assigned to the federal government or denied to the states by the Constitution is the domain of the state governments.
Since its founding, our nation has been large and diverse, and we've only become more so over the centuries. Federalist principles allow California and North Dakota, Arizona and Maine, to generally pursue policies that work best for those unique parts of our country.
It was and still is a genius innovation implemented by the Founders.
Omdahl believes we've had enough of it. "The failure of federalism is well documented by our recent experience with the muddled management of COVID-19 at all levels of government," he writes.
"States became enemies as they tried to outbid each other for medical supplies needed to fight COVID-19. Then the federal government got into the act and was competing with the states. Responses to the pandemic varied radically from one state to the next. Some states closed their doors to out-of-staters. Masking rules were inconsistent, with governors fighting local governments," he continues.
There was a lot of chaos during the pandemic, certainly, though it's unfair to blame that on federalism. Some of what drove the medical supply shortages was panic buying driven by our early and completely understandable ignorance about the COVID-19 virus. We were told that we would have a ventilator shortage, and companies, even those who weren't in the business of making ventilators before, rushed to build more, and what we ended up with was a glut. We didn't need as many ventilators as we thought.
Was that federalism's fault? Or an unavoidable consequence of the emergence of a previously unknown strain of virus, the treatment of which we had to innovate on the fly?
Still, I suspect Omdahl and other advocates for more muscular and more centralized government would argue that more streamlined governance would mean more efficient policymaking, which is the sort of thing that sounds good to political science professors like Omdahl but doesn't work as well as you'd think in practice.
Federalism allows for innovative policymaking that centralized government doesn't. We know now that Florida handled the COVID-19 pandemic much better than New York, at least as measured by the rate of death from the virus (though that was a difficult thing to discern given the national news media's fawning over Gov. Andrew Cuomo and disdainful view of Gov. Ron DeSantis).
We know how all 50 states performed during the pandemic. That data allows us to evaluate the performance of specific policies, something that would be impossible in the sort of top-down, one-size-fits-all policymaking regime that Omdalh is promoting.
And speaking one-size-fits-all policies, I'd argue that the opposite of what Omdahl argues is true. We haven't outgrown federalism. We've moved too far astray from it to the point where Congress and the executive branch are trying to govern a nation that is so diverse culturally and geographically that it is, as a practical matter, nearly ungovernable.
There are political realities to this we can't ignore. Policies that might be palatable to strong majorities in California may, whatever their efficacy, go over like a lead balloon in South Dakota.
Our nation is struggling with trust. Various factions of our society have lost their faith in the public health bureaucracy. In law enforcement. In the news media. In academia. One explanation for that mistrust is the nationalization of our politics, which is driven by the nationalization of policymaking.
Omdahl wants to lay this dysfunction at the foot of federalism when, in truth, it's caused by the very sort of centralization of authority he promotes.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.