We have too many levels of government

Not too long ago I was with a group of well-informed people who were speaking about current events. When one gentleman was asked what was on his mind, he said that he was concerned that in the United States we have too many levels of government. His words warmed my heart. The topic is rarely discussed, but if someone wanted to invent a system that would foster confusion and obstructionism, he or she could not do much better than with the American system of federalism.

As has been stated numerous times in this column, I have serious doubts about the purpose and viability of states in the modern world. Just consider the recent Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Bill of 1965. Removing the federal government from the oversight of state election laws, the path is wide open for any and all states to tinker with voting regulations to prevent any group of citizens from having a clear right to vote with easy access to the ballot box. The federal government was founded on ensuring basic rights to both the individual and the society as a whole. After the original colonies, most states just gave perfunctory adherence to basic rights in order to qualify to be admitted to the unions.

Unlikely_CandidateIn my book, An Unlikely Candidate, published in early 2011, I suggested a revised system of federalism with enhanced powers for the federal government and metropolitan governments but less for states and individual localities. I wrote:

In defense of states, it can accurately be argued that they were here first. The colonies existed before the Articles of Confederation or the United States of America. The federal government was formed with the consent of the states. It would be inappropriate as well as realistic to remove states from our federal system.

But states have not been good stewards of their money, they have not protected human rights, and one can tell by looking at a map of the United States that in many ways they are meaningless. You can drive seamlessly across the country without any meaning to the states you traverse. We are no longer an agrarian society; metropolitan population has long since surpassed rural population.

Many metropolitan areas stretch across state lines and the states are often obstacles to sound planning and collaboration. Among these cities are New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Portland, OR.

Imagine reducing the role of states and directing federal dollars to each of these metropolitan areas to use without jurisdictional limitations. Other metropolitan areas that are not along state boundaries also could benefit from independence from states. Such areas include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh.

We know that we cannot eliminate states, but over the course of time, we should take small steps to diminish their roles. Rather than having federal dollars go to states, the flow could go in the other direction. The federal government is much more fair in distributing limited resources. No one in Missouri or any other state would be without Medicaid if the states backed off and recognized that until otherwise demonstrated, the federal government is the best protector of fairness and human rights that we have.

Considerable additional governmental restructuring would be beneficial. Again it will take decades to accomplish this, but it is important that we move along with study and planning. In St. Louis County there are over ninety municipalities and numerous other jurisdictions including school districts. We need to restructure these communities so that they conform to natural boundaries and represent the actual areas in which people live, work, and spend their time.

I mentioned earlier that one of the reasons that voters get bewildered or discouraged is that it is virtually impossible to know for whom to vote because there are so many races on the ballot. Government consolidation and restructuring could considerably simplify this.

Imagine that it is a presidential year and you go to the polls to vote. A reasonable ballot could include your choices for:

  1. President / Vice-President
  2. U.S. Senate
  3. U.S. House of Representatives
  4. State Governor (other statewide positions could be appointed with the diminished roles of states).
  5. State legislator (All states could follow the example of Nebraska and move to a unicameral [one house] legislature)
  6. Municipal area executive (mayor of the metropolitan area in which you live)
  7. Metropolitan area council representative

That’s it. You would have become familiar with seven races. The media could cover all of them. There would be an order to the way in which we do government rather than a tangled web.

Our governmental system would be much more transparent and easier to effect meaningful change. It would not be structured as it is now, which is to make virtually everything other than saying “no” difficult to do.

We’re far from that point, and tinkering with the Constitution is fraught with numerous known and unknown hazards. I would not support a new constitutional convention in today’s political climate. However, I would advocate expanding the conversation. My thanks to Gary at the Meetup gathering who did so.