Written By: Our Very Own Co-Chair, Chris Marot
September 12, 2005
I often get blank stares from friends when I'm at a party on
a Friday night and I start talking politics. Usually, the response
is a chorus of "whatever, Marot" or "don't give
me any of that FDR bull
" you get the idea. Lately,
I have been the one giving blank stares as friends and others
I know talk about "State's rights" and an arcane version
of federalism that leaves States too weak to deal with natural
disasters. Within the confines of a safe and comforting campus
like Holy Cross, some students suffer from a disconnect with the
real world. Nostalgic wishes for a "less intrusive"
federal government seem quaint and even favorable from a distance.
It is a nice idea until something terrible happens and we are
brought back to reality.
Hurricane Katrina has proven to be a wake up call in this respect.
Some politicians may cry foul at the slow response of FEMA and
other federal relief programs, but in truth, this is only a symptom
of the real problem. It is inconceivable that the people in charge
of such relief efforts, including the tough-as-nails General Russell
Honoré who has shown his commitment to the people of New
Orleans, are purposely neglecting their jobs. The slow response
is actually the result of over 25 years of failed government philosophy.
In the late 1970s, conservative intellectuals were organizing
a frontal assault on the Democrats' welfare state and vision of
federal action. At first, the attacks were aimed at anti-poverty
programs and attempts at what they labeled "social engineering."
The federal government was trying to turn everything into a science,
they claimed, including our way of practicing politics. There
may be some merit to these critiques, but the main issue here
is the impact upon the nature of government.
On a practical level, conservative politicians seized upon the
criticism of federal intervention but lacked the vigor to offer
large-scale adjustments or alternative solutions other than leaving
States to fend for themselves. With the election of Ronald Reagan,
the rhetoric was solidified: "government is not the solution
to our problems, government is the problem." Reagan proceeded
to move from a Roosevelt-style federal system dedicated to security
and public-spirited action and towards a government that was essentially
narcissistic: if it doesn't benefit me directly, cut it.
A policy soon developed which liberal politicos and academics
dubbed "starve the beast." Reagan's restructuring of
income tax levels combined with increases in defense spending
led to huge deficits (sound familiar?) that many hoped would eventually
cripple the federal government's ability to fund social programs.
This strategy was bound to fail, however, due to the politics
surrounding the particular programs. As a result, cuts were minimized
or even put off to a later date.
When President Clinton came to Washington, he came as a New Democrat
preaching a "third way" that attempted to achieve liberal
goals with conservative market-based means. It was Clinton, not
Reagan or another Republican, who declared "the era of Big
Government is over." He largely gave in to public relations
pressure and Republican budget demands. Though Clinton successfully
brought balance back to the country's yearly budgets, the debt
that had been accumulated was so great that he was unwilling to
take risks in order to fund many public programs. Despite the
advent of several pet programs that Clinton championed (and which
were quite successful), his administration did little to reverse
the trend of reducing the federal role in the States.
Naturally, when President Bush was elected as the inheritor of
Reagan's legacy, he proposed a hefty tax cut, which in real dollars
benefited the rich much more than any other group. This may seem
logical, because it is assumed that wealthy Americans carry more
of the tax burden in the first place. Arguments about tax loopholes
not withstanding, the subsequent loss in public services disproportionately
affected those in the middle and lower classes while the elites
cashed in on their reduced tax rates.
The fact of the matter is that the now-dominant conservative mentality
regarding the federal government has had grave consequences in
this country. Democrats are no longer only complaining about disproportional
reductions in services and taxes. Now, as Hurricane Katrina has
proven, the budget games both parties have played have come back
to haunt Americans of all classes. The States had adapted to a
post-Depression system in which the Federal government recognized
a role in such areas as education, welfare and infrastructure.
Historically, the Federal role in economic and transportation
aid to States has its roots in the building of the Erie Canal.
Yet, since the 1980s, States have had to cope with less and less
Federal aid, including in the areas of infrastructure and general
'aid to States' which is often issued in block grants that can
be used for broad purposes. States are hard-pressed to raise the
revenue to meet these needs because, far from Washington, they
realize that even if the money disappears their problems do not.
They are dealing with a Washington culture that looks at welfare
and says "it's a State problem" and simultaneously looks
at infrastructure and says "that's also a State problem"
and expects States to carry the ever-increasing burden.
In 1981, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) conducted hearings
on reductions in grants-in-aid to States and localities. They
found that both rely heavily on the Federal government for revenue
and that serious changes would have to occur if cuts took place.
Today, the changes have manifested themselves in State budgets
caught in a virtual straightjacket. My home state of Connecticut
has had to reduce State aid to cities and towns as a result, leaving
major infrastructure projects unfunded and also forcing some hard
choices between funding mental health and education. New taxes
are debated every year, but the fear remains that higher taxes
will drive residents to New York or elsewhere. Similar situations
exist across the country.
Nowhere is the effect of Federal slash and burn budget policy
more apparent than in New Orleans. All sides have been remiss
in their duties to repair and maintain the levees that burst under
the weight of Katrina, but with less and less money coming from
Washington, the legislature and the city council had few options
other than directly raising taxes or limiting their spending on
other priorities. Again, this is a major departure from the federal
role since Roosevelt. Now is the time, while the military and
relief workers care for the people of the Gulf region, for Congress
and the President to show real leadership and reverse this trend
of reckless budget politicking. While tax cuts and even social
spending are more politically attractive to Republicans and Democrats
alike, the main functions of government must be met. This writer
hopes both parties can come together and put first things first
- infrastructure and protecting our nation's citizens - before
such a tragedy happens again.