A New Federalism? Don’t Hold Your Breath


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Photo: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for a Convention of the States to rein in federal power and to restore some measure of balance to the American federal system.

It’s a nonstarter, frankly, and it’s also fundamentally flawed.

We don’t need a Convention of States — at least, for now.  What we need are bigger states. Forty-plus years ago, California Gov. Ronald Reagan, speaking on the rubber-chicken circuit, called for a de-federalization of the welfare state and its return to individual states.

Predictably, state governors balked, because they lacked the tax base to run 50 different welfare systems.

This speaks to a fundamental truth about the current state of American federalism: The only way we could reinvent federalism as the Founders understood it is to combine the vast majority of states into larger entities with larger tax bases.

We owe that keen insight to the late U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan.

Late in his life, Kennan stepped up with a solution for striking a new federalist balance with larger political entities in mind.

In his book, Around the Cragged Hill, Kennan outlined a series constitutional reforms that would transform the states into what he termed “constituent republics,” larger political entities with substantial sovereignty vis-a-vis the central government.

Interestingly, he also advocated assigning this status to New York, Los Angeles, and a few other major U.S. cities.

Kennan was onto something — in my humble opinion, his proposal embodies the only viable solution  to the longstanding impasse within American federalism.  But, of course, it presents its own set of obstacles.

This radical solution could be achieved only by amending the U.S. Constitution, a complicated process that can be initiated in only two ways: by securing two-thirds support in both houses of Congress or by a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures calling for a constitutional convention, which has never been achieved.

Neither approach seems likely at this point in time.  There doesn’t appear to be overwhelming support within either house of Congress for a radical devolution of federal power.   And, for that matter, how many state legislatures would be willing to vote for their own extinction?  And even if, by some miracle, supporters achieved enough support for a formal proposal of such an amendment,  they would face the added challenge of securing three-fourths support among the 50 state legislatures or ratifying conventions.

Moreover, Congress is required by the Constitution to set a time limit on passage of this amendment, rendering this whole process even more difficult.

To overcome all of these daunting obstacles, Kennan’s measure would have to garner overwhelming support.  And this scarcely seems possible. Many, if not most, rank-and-file Americans, even those in red states, tend to regard with ambivalence any discussion of states rights or regionalism – at least, that’s my impression.

The major preoccupations remain bread-and-butter issues – taxes, the deficit and economic recovery.

Call me a pessimist, but I simply don’t foresee any groundswell for state sovereignty and regionalism any time in the foreseeable future — at least, at a level capable of achieving lasting change.  And for this reason, it appears that the American people will continue to be locked into the current federalist impasse for decades to come.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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