On Federalism in the Trump Era

“This is about the whole world, and the people who live here,” says California Governor Jerry Brown in the promotional YouTube video for his Global Climate Action Summit. The summit is to be hosted in San Francisco, far away from the Trump White House and the Washington DC political establishment, and is a decidedly bold step to counter the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump withdrew from the agreement, negotiated under President Obama’s administration, on the grounds that it would only impede job creation in the energy sector, waste taxpayer dollars, and create burdensome, growth-inhibiting regulations. As can be witnessed with the declaration made at the G20 Summit by California’s Governor—“He doesn’t speak for the rest of America”— President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has resulted in business, non-profit, state, and local government leaders speaking out and undertaking proactive steps to not only maintain their commitment to the Paris deal but to counter the international policy of the Trump administration.

These recent developments reflect on the current state of federalism in America. Federalism in the United States is a system of divided powers between the central government and the lower governments, with federal, state, and local level governments administering over their own jurisdictions. The specifics of the federalist system are outlined in the US Constitution, with the “Supremacy Clause” maintaining national law as supreme over state and local law, and an “Elastic Clause,” which reserves for the US Congress the power to pass all laws necessary for the carrying out of its enumerated responsibilities. Additionally, the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states those powers not reserved for the federal government. These negotiated steps were an undertaking of the founding fathers to balance the liberty and agency of the states, with the authority, oversight, and security of an overarching federal government. The purpose of these power allocations is to maintain some form of balance between state and federal authority, with neither infringing upon the rights and responsibilities of the other.

The current fissures between the federal and state governments should be viewed as a consequence of our co-operative system of federalism coming into conflict with increased political polarization and partisanship in recent years. In theory, co-operative federalism is characterized by the central and lower level governments using their mutual power and specific advantages to work together to accomplish shared policy goals. However, when federal government actors undertake ideologically motivated steps that are perceived to infringe upon the rights and authorities relegated to the states, state government actors sound the alarm; what was intended to be a mutually beneficial relationship turns dour, and the American political landscape grows increasingly splintered.  

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is not a mandate that the states stop working with foreign nations to address climate change. Since many foreign leaders are vocalizing frustrations with the President, with some even viewing him as a liability, the result of these concerns could be an increase of foreign nations bypassing federal leaders such as the President and Secretary of State, instead working directly with state governors and even mayors to get things done. While climate change advocates may celebrate such a political alliance, it should be viewed with caution. The high-minded goals of protecting the environment may be noble, but this alliance represents a fissure between the current presidential administration and a number of the states it relies upon to implement effective and well crafted public policy initiatives. When such hard-line opposition is employed, wellsprings of co-operation between the federal government and the states begin to dry up, as elected officials attempt to use political leverage to counter and oppose the President’s agenda. An instance of this can be observed with the massive rejection of the Commission on Voter Integrity, which is another instance of state-level pushback toward the President’s policies. This is not to suggest that the Commission on Voter Integrity is a good or well-substantiated idea, but rather to consider the effects of hard-line politicking on the long term relationship between the states and federal government, especially considering how polarized American political leaders have become in recent years. Some of these state-level rejections may simply be unavoidable, due to the turbulent and unrefined nature of this presidency. As such, the importance of having level heads and reasonable policy advocates in the Oval Office is now highly evident.

There are certain aspects of federalism that could spell trouble for those states that reject the President’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. One potential consequence is what is referred to as coercive federalism, in which the federal government manipulates funding streams and unfunded mandates to push the states in the intended policy direction. A present-day instance of this can be seen in the policy of current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions towards “sanctuary cities.” Sanctuary cities are those cities with policies favorable or forgiving towards illegal immigrants, particularly those who commit no crimes, are refugees, or can demonstrate that they are of no immediate risk to society. These cities are taking a policy stance that is in direct opposition to the Trump administration, which expects cities to turn in these immigrants to federal immigration officers to be detained and deported. What makes this policy dispute an instance of coercive federalism is that Attorney General Sessions is withholding federal law enforcement grant dollars from sanctuary cities. Chicago is a city in particular that has drawn the vexation of the Attorney General, with the city filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court to revoke the policy. City representatives argue the funding restrictions stifle progress in the relationship between “local law enforcement and immigrant communities.” The coercive federalist strategy may also be applied to marijuana-friendly municipalities, which the Attorney General has also strongly condemned.

The roots of these conflicts stem partially from President Trump’s ambitions to create a stark policy shift from former President Obama. Given current political circumstances, however, it is likely that the President’s efforts to fully withdraw from Paris will be unsuccessful. Any removal from the agreement will be met with deep resistance, and the President has already alienated many top domestic and international actors with a series of political missteps. Among these include the failed GOP health care bill, which has created a tense divide between the President and some establishment Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; the G20 Summit where the President eagerly met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, before returning home to find Congress imposing a strong sanctions package against Russian interests; and the morally ambiguous response to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, which angered and frustrated Republicans, some of whom, like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, the President has even begun to publicly war with. One must also take into account the President’s extremely limited prior experience with government management, policy, and oversight, and an ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. All things considered, it is highly unlikely that President Trump will be able to accomplish a significant portion of his policy agenda.

There are still storms on the horizon for this administration to push through, both literal, in the case of Hurricane Harvey, and figurative. There is the looming debt ceiling debate, the Republican tax reform agenda, and the frustrations of Congressional Republicans over President Trump’s threats of a government shutdown; the President insists on one unless any budgetary negotiations include a payment plan for a border wall. What remains to be seen is how this administration will attempt to contend with the pressing policy challenges that are coming to shore. Before the President’s policy agenda can cohere and be marketed to Congress, he must first establish much needed stability within the federal government. If he does not, it could spell long term consequences for the ability of the federal government to lead the nation, and to create sustainable policy solutions that actually work for Americans.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a Senior Writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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