Opinion: Columnists

Conn Carroll: The sequester's federalism opportunity

Opinion,Conn Carroll,Columnists,Politics Digest

Many things in President Obama's sequestration press event last Tuesday would have confused the authors of the United States Constitution. They would surely have scratched their heads wondering what exactly a scheduled cut in federal government spending had anything to do with all of the state and local police officers and firefighters standing in as campaign props behind Obama.

After all, in "Federalist No. 45," James Madison wrote: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce ... The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."

There is nothing external about police and fire protection. The funding and upkeep of police and fire departments is entirely about the maintenance of internal order. And for more than 200 years, the federal government honored that distinction.

Then, in 1995, President Clinton created the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program, which awards grants to local governments to hire new police officers. And just eight years later, President Bush created the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program, which does the exact same thing for local fire departments.

So now the federal government is in the local police and fire protection business. But are we any safer? Not according to detailed studies comparing cities that did and did not receive SAFER and COPS grants.

According to the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis, COPS grants "had no statistically significant effect on murder, rape, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft rates." Cities that received SAFER grants saw no reduction in firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths or civilian injuries.

Not only is federal involvement in police and fire services worthless, it also makes us less safe. Before Obama appointed him to become administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, then-Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Craig Fugate told the Atlantic, "The more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. ... If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less."

Conservatives have understood this insight for decades. In his first State of the Union in 1982, President Reagan said, "Our citizens feel they've lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools, welfare, roads and even garbage collection. And they're right. A maze of interlocking jurisdictions and levels of government confronts average citizens in trying to solve even the simplest of problems."

"They don't know where to turn for answers, who to hold accountable, who to raise, who to blame, who to vote for or against," Reagan continued, "The main reason for this is the overpowering growth of federal grants-in-aid programs during the past few decades."

No program better embodies the dangers of overlapping federal and state accountability than Medicaid. Medicaid is run by the states but mostly funded by the federal government. Even before Obamacare became law, the federal government was spending $1.33 for every dollar the states spent on Medicaid. With an incentive structure like that, no wonder Medicaid spending has eclipsed education and all other priorities in most states.

Conservatives should be rolling back Medicaid and other federal-state partnerships like the Federal Highway Administration. Instead, Republicans are expanding these programs. Just this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott joined six other Republican governors in expanding Medicaid up to 133 percent of poverty.

Now, when these programs fail, as the rest of Obamacare surely will, voters will find it difficult to know who to hold accountable. Do they blame Democrats for creating a federally run health care monstrosity? Or is their Republican governor just running the program badly?

Even at the height of its power in 2011, the Republican Tea Party Congress failed to end the COPS and SAFER programs. The sequester and upcoming continuing resolution fight give conservatives a chance to rectify that mistake.

Conn Carroll ( is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.

View article comments Leave a comment