Cox flexes Utah’s federalism muscle

Written by Derek Monson

May 13, 2021

With his announcement that Utah will join nine other states in ending participation in a federal program that offers an extra $300 per month to unemployed residents, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has shown Utahns that federalism continues to be part of America’s civic fabric. This latest expression of federalism continues what the data suggest may be a new trend in American governance and civic affairs, illustrating that federalism remains alive and well in America.

Definitions of federalism vary in their particulars, but they consistently contain the idea of at least two levels of government – such as national and state governments – each with some distinct and some overlapping areas of sovereign policymaking authority. In the case of the United States, this means that the federal government has primary authority in areas such as national defense and interstate and international commerce and trade, while states have primary authority in areas such as education, healthcare, welfare/anti-poverty programs, and policies impacting the local workforce.

Nevertheless, both levels of government maintain policies and programs that impact all of those areas of life. And beginning over a decade ago, an expression of federalism in some areas of public policy began – and has continued with the recent state decisions on unemployment benefits.

In 2010, the federal Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) became law. One of its major provisions was an expansion of a federal-state partnership in healthcare policy for low-income Americans: the Medicaid program. However, in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius that Medicaid expansion must be optional for states, in line with the principle of federalism. Thus began what is one of the longest-running experiments in federalism in modern times.

Almost a decade later, 12 states representing more than 100 million Americans have not expanded their state’s Medicaid program. These states have chosen to take different policy approaches to the healthcare needs of some of their low-income residents (the lowest-income families were already eligible for Medicaid prior to the ACA).

The state-driven, federalism-based approach to governing continued – and in some ways expanded – under the Trump administration. Most of the decisions of how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic were made at the state level – from policies toward masks in public places, to restrictions on gatherings and economic activity, to details of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The decision of the 10 states to withdraw from participation in the federal additional unemployment assistance program continues this trend. These 10 states represent more than 37 million Americans, and there is a distinct possibility that other states will enact similar opt-outs as their local economies rebound and jobs continue to be plentiful. This federalism-based decision will impact the job-seeking activities of millions of Americans.

The future promises to hold more of the same, if political news reporting is to be believed. For example, President Joe Biden’s proposals for free universal preschool and community college (that is, paid for by all taxpayers) have met with pushback from the elected leaders of some states. Because these education proposals envision a federal-state partnership (similar to Medicaid), federalism will come into play and state elected leaders may choose to not participate in them. Only time will tell whether and how many states will exercise this right under federalism, presuming these federal education proposals garner enough support to become law.

In short, the last decade has illustrated what may be a growing trend of federalism playing an increasing role in American civic life. Given the growth of the federal government over time and historically low levels of public trust in federal government, a reinvigoration of federalism could restore some trust to government and strengthen our civic fabric.

While this analysis is not an exhaustive examination of American federalism over the last decade, it seems clear based on the evidence that federalism remains a concrete aspect of American civic life. There is no guarantee that this remains true in the future, of course. But for now, federalism appears far from dead.

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