COLUMBIA — Federalism — the tug-a-war among the states and the national government — underlies this past week’s high-profile issues of disability benefits, expanding Medicaid and the Supreme Court’s hearing on same-sex marriage. The debate about the federal-state balance is often under-appreciated. While it slows policy-making and can result in interstate inequities and inefficiencies, it often contributes to our nation’s resilience.
While Congress has won the approval of about 17 percent of the population, narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff and sequestered a segment of the federal budget, states have achieved somewhat of a budgetary resurgence over the past couple years. Almost certainly the nation is more stable, with less disruption in social programs and 50 states co-existing with the national government rather than one big national leviathan.
State revenue gaps for the fiscal year 2014 are down to an estimated $12 billion from the high of $174 billion four years ago. State revenues are returning to their pre-Great Recession levels. With continued increases in Medicaid and other health care related expenses, the states have not restored spending for K-12 education, corrections and transportation.
A particularly frustrating issue is the recently reported Missouri contract to pay a private consulting firm $2,300 for each case it is able to move from state rolls to the federally-funded Social Security disability program. States' efforts to shift disability burdens to the federal government are not new, but it is irritating to see a cottage industry of lawyers, social scientists and public relations specialists that develop around government programs without a real increase in the disability program’s social impact. This inefficiency is a direct result of the disability program’s design — one big national program would not face the budget busting cost shifting that results from states’ effort to minimize the use of their own funds. The increase in the retirement portion (a totally national responsibility) of the Social Security budget has been less than the increase in the disability program (jointly administered with the states).
This year’s hot-button issue in state legislatures, especially Republican ones, is the expansion of Medicaid required by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, sometimes called “Obamacare.” This joint federal-state health insurance program for low-income families receives 57 percent on average from the federal budget but much more in poorer states. The Affordable Care Act requires states to increase the family-income ceiling so that those not eligible for federal subsidy for private insurance would have health insurance coverage. Insurance coverage is key for reducing uncompensated care and more expensive emergency room medical care.
The Affordable Care Act authorizes additional federal money to pay for the newly insured folks, but the concern, perceived far greater by Republican governors and legislators, is that the federal government will not be able to maintain its financial commitment in the coming years. While this is a valid concern and should be broadcast to our representatives in Congress, partisan interests seem to be outpacing financial prudence. For instance, the Republican governors of Ohio and Florida have endorsed Medicaid expansion because they have sufficient political cover in those states carried by President Obama in the last election. Ironically, the states that receive the highest federal match are those that oppose Medicaid expansion.
Finally, this past week’s news was dominated by the Supreme Court hearing two days of arguments on challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and California’s Proposition 8 that outlawed same-sex marriage in 2008. While there is also a 14th Amendment equal protection argument concerning prohibiting same-sex marriage and the distribution of fringe benefits to same-sex domestic partners, the federalism portion of the debate seems rather clear. Namely, the Supreme Court should overturn the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition of same-sex marriage and uphold states’ authority to regulate family law. Legally, this would leave California’s Proposition 8 in place and the laws of 11 states and +D.C. the District of Columbia that allow some type of same-sex unions. The result would undoubtedly be confusion and inconsistencies in employment, health care practices and other legal proceedings that will take several decades to work out.
While this may be an unhappy legal result for either opponents or supporters of same-sex marriage, it is a practical solution that avoids legalese mumbo-jumbo and retains the historical role of the states in family law. Public opinion about the acceptability of same-sex marriage has shifted rapidly in the past 20 years and is projected to continue to do so. California’s anti-same-sex marriage proposition was adopted by a vote of 52.2 to 47.8 percent in 2008. It is likely that Proposition 8 will be rescinded by a vote of California citizens.
Federalism is frustrating, bulky and inefficient, but in the end it seems to have served us better than the alternatives.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.