What’s Next? Remaking Federalism

So, what’s next? As the fever pitch of the presidential campaign subsides, many Americans are wondering just that—and often with a lot of pessimism.

Unemployment still hovers near 8  percent. The federal deficit stands at over $1.1 trillion. The fiscal cliff yawns and after that, the potential for another debt ceiling standoff. Partisan rancor, moreover, convulses an increasingly outmoded federal enterprise.

Much, much work needs to be done.

And yet, not everything is bleak. Beyond Washington, a new wave of “bottom-up” economy-shaping is gathering strength in America’s states and metropolitan areas.

Emanating from the localism of the economy, focused on investing in innovation, accelerating advanced industries and exports, bolstering the nation’s infrastructure and human capacities, and building collaborative networks, this new wave of self-help is at once a response to gridlock in Washington and a hint of a way beyond it.

Next week, we at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program are going to be taking a provocative look at this new next phase of governing.

Specifically, on Tuesday we will launch a new federal policy series—Remaking Federalism | Renewing the Economy—aimed at reframing the tired discourse of federal policy complaints and advancing a new vision for reform focused on overhauling Washington to put it much more in service of America’s vibrant, creative metropolitan hubs and their states. 

Basically, we will be saying with some force that, starting now, Washington needs to “do less, better” by implementing a limited set of reforms designed to:

  • “cut to invest,” and so reduce the national debt while making strategic investments in the fundamentals of growth—R&D, advanced industry investments, export promotion, education
  • invest but reform, and so reform its activities to make them not only more efficient and effective but more catalytic and encouraging of local and state problem-solving
  • strengthen federalism, and so maximize the power of its dynamic partnerships with localities and states

Along these lines, a framing paper and sequence of concrete, do-able proposals advance a fresh approach for extracting progress out of a moment of economic drift, fiscal constraint, and federal gridlock.

While the constraints on action remain severe, an opportunity exists for President Obama and Congress to get the nation moving again. But success is going to require a fundamentally different approach.