From Federalism

Shallow State

Inefficient, inequitable, and maddeningly slow, America’s fragmented administrative institutions are saving the Republic before our eyes.

American elections are run by a messy mish-mash of local, state, and federal agencies. That’s a feature, not a bug. Photo: WHYY

The American administrative apparatus is an astonishing jumble. Scores of federal agencies, fifty states (plus D.C.), 14 territories, hundreds of tribes, and tens of thousands of local governments share responsibility for domestic public policy in the United States. Beyond its inelegance, this mind-boggling fragmentation is a recipe for waste, confusion, and contradiction. No sane person would design a system like this if the goal was efficient, equitable regulation or delivery of public services. It’s a hot mess.

But by brilliant design or happy accident, America’s confusing and convoluted administrative institutions simultaneously allow for and defend against electoral abuse. The slow-rolling drama of this year’s federal elections is a dramatic case-in-point.

Frustrating fragmentation

Federalism—a model of governance that shares authority between a central government and regional subunits—gets a pretty bad rap in political science and economics. Federalism generates inconsistent, often contradictory policies. The whole apparatus is inequitable, as citizens in different parts of the country experience government in very different ways, often with troubling racial or ethnic biases. Administrative systems are redundant, bloated, and sometime work at cross-purposes. Our system of government isn’t Schoolhouse Rock, it’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Every time I move from one state to another and wait in line at the DMV, I wonder: does America really need more than fifty driver’s licensing regimes and insurance regulators? Do we really need to track births, deaths, marriages, and land ownership through 3,000 county governments? Does it really make sense to parcel out responsibility for firefighting and law enforcement and education and health care and trash disposal across tens of thousands of governments?

Brilliantly efficient policies conceived on drawing boards in think tanks, seminars, and congressional hearings slam into this amorphous, chaotic intergovernmental blob. Look no further than the COVID-19 vaccine administration to see what I mean.

Baffling, byzantine, brilliant elections

Disorder and fragmentation also afflict American democracy. Election administration is intensely local in the United States. Elections in this country aren’t run by the Federal Election Commission. In most of the U.S., county and town governments organize and administer elections with state oversight. The work of issuing and counting ballots falls to tens of thousands of local officials and poll workers. Votes are cast and counted with a bizarre mish-mash of technologies. Vote counting is slow, reporting of results is haphazard, and when presidential elections are close, the delays are maddening. Even worse, all this fragmentation can allow state or local authorities to make voting difficult when it’s politically advantageous. Our country has a troubled history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a landmark step toward addressing those problems, and over the years there have been calls to nationalize voting administration completely.

Voting booths look deceptively elegant.

But ironically, fragmentation of our electoral system is also a safeguard against tyranny. Over the past month we’ve seen a remarkable federalist drama play out in Georgia. Georgia’s top election official and Secretary of State have publicly clashed with President Trump’s obdurate refusal to accept the outcome of the Peach State’s elections. The audio recording of Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger leaked last week is a testimony to the surprising strength of the nation’s fractured electoral systems.

Raffensperger, an elected official and life-long Republican, steadfastly refused to use his administrative authority to change his state’s election results, despite the President’s cajoling and vague threats. Raffensperger could show this kind of fortitude because he was selected by and is responsible to the voters of Georgia, not to the President of the United States. Raffensperger works in Atlanta alongside other Georgia officials; to capitulate to Trump’s demands would be to dishonor the public servants he sees every day. Just so, elections administrators in each of Georgia’s 159 counties are responsible to their own communities, not the President.

Hard to manage is also hard to hack

It is easy to imagine an alternative world in which Congress sets detailed rules for elections, the President appoints a Secretary of Elections, and a U.S. Department of Elections operates the whole system. Certainly, election administration would be more uniform, and we’d likely get results much faster. But uniform technology for casting and counting votes would make our elections far more vulnerable to electronic mischief. Whatever its other drawbacks, the Rube Goldberg Machine that is our election administration system is reasonably immune to concentrated attack. No vast right-wing conspiracy is possible, no deep-state conspiracy is possible, no national electoral conspiracy of any kind is really possible because our nation’s whole electoral apparatus is so convoluted.

Most of all, locally-managed elections form an inelegant but potent check on executive power. A U.S. Department of Elections staffed by presidential appointees would be glaringly vulnerable to presidential meddling. Would a U.S. Secretary of Elections appointed by President Trump resist manipulation the way that Georgia’s Secretary of State did?

As I write this, Georgia is in the throes of managing its special senate election. The polls suggest a close race, so it’s likely going to take elections officials a while to complete and validate everything. Angry, impatient cries will erupt from every ideological corner, just as they did in the ten days after last November’s federal elections. That’s OK. Our crazy quilt electoral system isn’t pretty, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t particularly fair; but it’s awfully hard to break. At a moment when our institutions are under stress, that is some comfort.

Infrastructure & the Art of the Possible

The growing national attention to public infrastructure in the United States has been gratifying to those of us who have been working on the issue for a long time. Infrastructure has been a simmering issue for decades, but a spate of recent high-profile disasters has pushed it to the forefront of American politics. It was a major theme in the 2016 presidential election, and last week the White House announced president Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan in a 55-page document.

I’ve had a chance to review and reflect on the proposal; in this inaugural blog post and a few posts to follow, I’ll share some observations about White House’s infrastructure plan. I’m going to focus on the infrastructure plan itself, and in ways that can maybe add some value to the public discourse. So in this series of posts I won’t comment on the president’s budget proposal or regulatory actions—I’ll just stick to the 55-page plan. This post will discuss the White House infrastructure plan’s broad financial elements, since adequacy of finance has garnered most attention. In future posts I’ll address privatization, water infrastructure, and workforce aspects of the plan… and maybe other stuff, too.

Federal funding as federal leverage

America’s infrastructure funding needs are enormous. Drinking water systems alone will require more than a trillion dollars over the next 25 years to maintain health and economic growth. Sewer systems need more than $271 billion over the next two decades. Replacement and repair costs for railroads, highways, bridges, seaports, airports, dams, levees, and myriad other systems are enormous. Even conservative estimates of infrastructure needs put the price tag into the trillions of dollars.

In the face of those daunting figures, the White House plan calls for about $200 billion in federal infrastructure funding, $50 billion of which is to be targeted at rural and tribal infrastructure. The most common critique has been disappointment in the scale federal commitment under the plan (for example), and no one seriously argues that $200 billion is adequate to address the nation’s infrastructure needs. The president’s plan seeks to use the federal contribution to spur local, state, and/or private investment by offering a 10-20% match. That is, a local government could propose a $100 million project; if approved, the federal government might contribute up to $20 million, with the local government responsible for raising the remaining $80 million from other sources. In that way, the federal government essentially subsidizes local/state/private infrastructure investment.

This arrangement is typical for federal infrastructure funding from the 1950s-1970s. Comparatively little of the nation’s critical infrastructure is actually owned by the federal government; most is owned and operated by state/local governments or private corporations. For highways, ports, and water/sewer systems in particular, the great federal spending programs of the past have been set up as proportionate matches or grants-in-aid for construction. In most cases, this cooperative arrangement was a central to the legislative coalition that came together to fund infrastructure. The idea is for the federal government to spur construction, then turn infrastructure over to state/local government for ongoing maintenance and replacement.

The main difference between the White House’s infrastructure funding proposal and the great federal infrastructure programs of decades past is the share of the federal contribution: Uncle Sam paid for 90% of construction costs under the 1956 Interstate Highway Act and 75% under the Clean Water Act, for example. To put things in perspective, the Clean Water Act’s $57 billion of local grants-in-aid would be more than $300 billion in today’s dollars.

State & local governments on the hook

But for a variety of reasons, many local and state governments have not adequately maintained, replaced, or expanded infrastructure. In some cases, disasters or economic decline have made adequate funding difficult. More often, though, state/local politicians find it easier to neglect infrastructure than to maintain it adequately. Repair and reinvestment aren’t very sexy, and politicians everywhere prefer lower taxes and user fees. Hence the multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure costs facing the nation.

Would a larger federal contribution than called for in the Trump plan help close the gap? Absolutely. But the days of federal largesse underwriting infrastructure in the 1950s-1970s are probably over. With entitlements, defense, debt and tax expenditures sucking up the lion’s share of the budget and politicians loathe to raise taxes, it’s difficult to imagine a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure initiative in near future.

Put simply, there is little Congressional appetite for massive federal investment in local and state infrastructure today. The most useful way to think about the White House funding plan is not to compare it to the Interstate Highway Act or Clean Water Act (when the feds paid a lot), but rather to the status quo (when feds pay virtually nothing). It’s exceedingly unlikely that the federal government is going to foot the whole infrastructure bill, or even half of it. State and local officials complaining about federal government failure to pay for their infrastructure replacements is like dinosaurs complaining about asteroids.

Leveraging what?

Capital for infrastructure has to come from somewhere. Under current political and fiscal conditions, the best prospect for effective federal financing is probably to entice other sources of capital into public infrastructure. That’s what the White House’s plan tries to do. Whether $200 billion is adequate to the task is hard to say.

I’ll take up the thorny question of infrastructure privatization another day.