While Scott Walker holding up a 1 dollar bill in sweaty mid-summer campaign is a nifty image for devolution of power back to the state and local level, the process started in the early 70’s with Richard Nixon. What had been dual federalism with state and federal authority and responsibility clearly marked off from each other, began to intermingle with cooperative federalism from around 1937 with FDR at the height of his presidency, up until 1960 when Kennedy was elected. Kennedy brought in creative federalism with Washington dictating how state governments spent their money more than had been the case. Local states had to be prodded into action by Washington on grand matters like the War on Poverty and minorities (although that had started with de-segregation under Eisenhower). LBJ proved more than willing to continue prodding and it wasn’t until Nixon’s second term that the tide began to flow back the other way. With Watergate drowning out positive achievements, it was Reagan a decade later who took more of the credit when he embraced what Nixon had started. By 1986, revenue sharing between the federal government and states was terminated.

But new federalism – as it is called – still had and still has a way to go. Although H.W. Bush and Clinton continued with new federalism – Clinton as much because House Republicans gave him no choice – George W. Bush turned back the tide of devolution with his education bill in 2002. And islamic terrorism required a coordinated federal response with the creation of DHS. As well, George W. Bush’s support for an amendment prohibiting gay and lesbian marriages was also an interference in the rights of those states that wished to legalize gay marriage. It is now precisely the opposite case, with individual states that wished to continue to define marriage in traditional ways being forced by the Supreme Court to allow gay marriage in their own state. That is more about the Separation of Federal branches, but state rights have historically been bound up with thorny social questions.

So while Scott Walker’s push for further devolution back to states and local governments is certainly a way to achieve lasting and sustainable fiscal accountability – look at him sweating away with George Washington between his fingers – it has always been as much about social policy as it has been about fiscal policy. And surely a President Walker would have to defend his worthwhile crusade on social grounds as much as by criticizing and promising to change Washington waste and fraud.

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