If you ask Republicans why exactly they support the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill that is their last chance to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they'll struggle to offer a specific reason. These are not, after all, a group of people who know much about health care or feel it necessary to understand what they're voting on. But after some casting about, they'll probably settle on the fact that the bill sends authority and money from the federal government down to the states, and doing so is always an unalloyed good.
"As a general rule the states do things better than the federal government does," says Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). "Our states — our 50 states — are very flexible, very innovative. Much more so than we are here," says Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). "It's about moving power to the states, where money can be spent much more effectively," says Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). "I like the idea of sending money back to the states and letting each state experiment with what's best for their citizens," says Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
This is a core part of contemporary Republican philosophy, that whenever possible we should devolve power away from out-of-touch bureaucrats in Washington and send it closer to the people, to those at the state and local level who understand their citizens and can craft the best solutions for them. You've probably heard this idea articulated so many times that you don't even question it. But there are two problems: There's no evidence it's true, and Republicans themselves don't even believe it.
If you listen closely, you'll notice that Republicans always express this belief that states work better than the federal government without getting specific. What you won't hear is anything resembling evidence that on the whole, states actually do things better. It isn't that you can't find innovative state programs or effective state administrators, because you can. But you can find those things on the federal level, too. And there is precisely zero reason to believe that as a group states are more efficient, spend money more wisely, design better programs, or serve citizens better than the federal government does. The next time somebody says that they do, ask them how they know. If they say "It just makes sense," that means they have no evidence.
To be sure, it's hard to make definitive claims about broad ideas like efficiency. But one thing we can say for sure is that state governments are, collectively, far more corrupt than the federal government. This is the opposite of what most people who constantly hear attacks on Washington, D.C., probably believe, but it's true. These days corruption in Washington of the old-fashioned briefcase-full-of-cash kind is vanishingly rare. Two years ago Hunter Schwarz of The Washington Post counted 32 members of Congress who had been convicted or pled guilty to various crimes (not all of which involved corruption) over a 35-year period. Since there are 535 members of Congress, that means that in a typical year, 99.8 percent of our elected federal representatives are on the right side of the law. Not bad!
But at the state and local level, corruption happens all the time. In the state of New York alone, 30 elected officials were convicted of corruption crimes in a single decade. Louisiana had a remarkable 403 officials convicted of various abuses of the public trust in a decade. Money moves around and decisions are made through systems with far less oversight, transparency, and strict procedures than you'll find at the federal level, giving lots of people the opportunity to steal and accept bribes. Ask a reporter from states like New Jersey, Illinois, Mississippi, or Louisiana how much corruption there is in their state government, and they'll regale you with shocking tales until you want to throw up your hands and give up on democracy.
Except you'll have a hard time finding those reporters, because the news organizations that cover state and local government have been gutted in the last couple of decades. That lack of scrutiny only makes corruption easier to carry out, and ensures that you'll never hear about most of it.
The difference between Republicans and Democrats on the question of federalism isn't that Republicans want power to go to the states while Democrats want to hoard it in Washington. The difference is that only Republicans pretend they believe in an abstract principle. Because the truth is that both parties sometimes like federal power and sometimes like state power — depending on what the different levels of government want to do.
So for instance, Democrats want a Medicaid program whose single set of rules provides strong protections for any beneficiary in America, no matter where they live. Republicans want to give "flexibility" to the states because they want to weaken and undermine the program, and they know that Republican-run states will do just that if given the chance. On the other hand, Democrats want states to be able to set their own laws when it comes to marijuana legalization, while Republicans want every state to have to adhere to federal law.
Republicans take it even farther. In the last few years, Republican-run states have been rushing to pass "pre-emption" laws that bar cities and towns from passing certain kinds of liberal measures, despite their alleged belief that the officials closest to the people know what's best for them. According to a recent report from the National League of Cities, 24 states have forbidden municipalities from raising their minimum wage, 17 won't allow measures on paid family leave, and 17 forbid municipalities from setting up their own broadband systems (a result of intense telecom company lobbying). Dozens of states pre-empt local gun laws — and Republicans hope to pass a federal law mandating "reciprocity," meaning that if you have a gun permit in any state you can bring your gun to any other state, which effectively robs each state of its ability to decide what kind of gun laws should prevail within its borders.
Perhaps the best recent example of GOP hypocrisy on the federalism question comes from Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who will be introducing an amendment to Graham-Cassidy to forbid states from setting up their own single-payer systems. Apparently, Republicans want states to experiment and innovate in health care — as long as it involves things like booting people off Medicaid and cutting back benefits. But if they start to get liberal ideas, then the heavy hand of the federal government is going to have to come down.
There's only so much "flexibility" that can be tolerated.