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David Hill: Polling for a new federalism

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Several items in the news lately demonstrate that our nation’s current strain of federalism is straining. 

State-legal marijuana vendors in Colorado and Washington cannot use banks because of federal rules. The federal and some state governments are vexed over handling tax and other legal matters for same-sex couples married in states that now or once allowed the practice. And the costs of, and access to, various federal-driven healthcare options, including Medicaid and ObamaCare, depend heavily on the state in which you live. These are but a few examples of the increasingly messy lawmaking and policy implementation process within our federal system.

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Once upon a time, for almost four decades, beginning in 1959, there was an institutional mechanism for addressing these issues. The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was “a permanent, independent, bipartisan agency that was established ... to study and consider the federal government’s intergovernmental relationships and the nation’s intergovernmental machination.” There were 26 individual members appointed to the commission from various levels of government, and it served as the go-to agency when knotty issues like differences in gun or tax laws across the federal, state and local levels created controversies like those outlined above. 

The commission let government officials weigh in, of course, but its most innovative contribution to the dialog over federalism was its use of survey research. The ACIR regularly commissioned polls to allow the public’s viewpoint to become part of the dialog surrounding intergovernmental relations. Unfortunately, during the Clinton years the agency fell out of favor after taking controversial positions on unfunded federal mandates and was closed down after four decades of activism. Strike “permanent” from the ACIR’s job description.

Now, perhaps more than at any time in the post World-War II era, we need insights on federalism. And I am wondering whether the research community — both public and private polling firms — should provide leadership by revealing the public’s position on key issues through research. 

This isn’t one of those complex and arcane policy issues where the public necessarily struggles to form opinions. On a few issues of relevance, including state marriage and marijuana laws, Gallup and Pew have recently asked some relevant questions in national polls, and respondents seemed to have readily expressed points of view about how to handle federal conflicts. Both research organizations have also periodically taken up the ACIR’s agenda and tested perceptions of the competence and trustworthiness of the federal, state and local levels of government generally. But more investigation needs to be done.

A lot has changed since the Constitution was written in 1787. Heck, there’s been a lot of change in federalism since the ACIR was shuttered. Even once seemingly small or obscure issues such as how tribal governance fits into the federal scheme are suddenly huge matters during our current explosion of Native American gaming in this country. Where do policymakers and advocates go to gain insights on niche matters like this and federalism more generally now?

An old political philosopher once said about a similar issue that “the stream is clearest near the spring,” implying that we should go back to the days of the Founding Fathers to figure out what should be done. If we do, I’d like to see some historical insights not on just what leaders of that era thought, but also how the public’s opinions from that era influenced the seminal notions of federalism. But we cannot possibly stop there. 

Federalism cannot become the prisoner of 18th century leaders and public opinion. No, each level of government has developed differently over the past two and a quarter centuries. New federalism should acknowledge that change, even if it leads back to something like the former Articles of Confederation or forward to something closer to the European Union.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.