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Observation: Nelson Rockefeller and ‘The Future of Federalism’ September 2008

Nelson Rockefeller and ‘The Future of Federalism’

By Richard Nathan
Co-director, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Richard Nathan

In 1962 Nelson Rockefeller delivered a series of three Godkin lectures on “The Future of Federalism” at Harvard University. He had been governor of New York for nearly four years. Before that he had served in appointed offices, primarily in the national government. The best advice I can give you to capture the spirit and verve of Nelson Rockefeller’s dedication to the federal idea is to go back and read these wonderful lectures. They reflect his exuberance about public service and gusto about the American nation and our governmental system.

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Richard P. Nathan is co-director of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, located in Albany. This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the Dartmouth College Nelson A. Rockefeller Center on September 23, 2008. Parts of it are taken from papers he has previously written. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions and ideas expressed in this paper are those of the author.

The Federal Idea

Nelson Rockefeller saw the federal idea — reconciling unity and diversity — as “probably the supreme American contribution to the struggle of all self governing people to build political structures strong enough to assure order and freedom in their lives.” I was a new aide to Nelson Rockefeller in that period. I offered a recent grad student’s ideas to the group of advisors who worked with the governor on these lectures. I was inspired by the lectures and by the energy and conviction of the man who presented them.

As was his great gift, Nelson Rockefeller was totally unafraid of calling upon the smartest senior aides and experts to advise him. He had around him a group of people with extraordinary range and intellect, yet it was always Nelson Rockefeller who was in charge.

Having spent many years since inside and outside of government studying the American federal system and now going back and reading these lectures, I am struck by the way the academic literature on federalism, my writings included, is often dry, technical, and lifeless. Re-reading Nelson Rockefeller’s 1962 Godkin Lectures is a wake-up call. He believed deeply that the federal idea is a source of energy and creativity that has invigorated both America’s private enterprise system and the nation’s political life and spirit.

It is worthwhile here to recount some of the highlights of Rockefeller’s Godkin lectures. Quoting scholars who said federalism was “languishing near death,” he said history has administered “a harsh retort” to such pronouncements. He championed the way “decisions vital to national well-being increasingly have been made at the circumference — the states — as well as the national center of political power.” He said federal grants-in-aid stimulate states to action and strive to equalize as a way to help solve domestic problems.

Rockefeller described federalism as a “unique arena” for governmental activism and a venue for citizen participation at all three levels — local, state, and national. He called it “a political adventure … no static thing, no dead definition, no dogmatic proclamation.” He lambasted “political aloofness,” the aversion to the “rough and tumble” of partisan politics, and said “the very nature of a democratic process depends upon active, intelligent, aggressive partisanship for its very life.” He said, “No democracy can afford to view the political scene as a kind of spectator sport played for the amusement of detached observers.” He saw federalism as a source of America’s greatness and an idea worthy of application to other nations and world affairs. The third of his lectures was called “Federalism and the Free World Order” and applied the lessons of federalism to international affairs.

Has federalism carried forward in a way that expressed the Rockefeller vision? My view is that it has, and that we sell ourselves short when we fail to read American history as a story of alternating surges of leadership and creativity in government, sometimes coming from the center and sometimes from the periphery, but always in a way that has advanced governance and government’s role in American life.

The nature and essence of American self government is not easily captured in a single neat and tidy definition. It is dynamic and intense. This is all the more true today in the Internet age. Everyone can play government, and a great many of us do. As in the turbulent 1960s when Rockefeller delivered the Godkin Lectures at Harvard, all is not well. No society is perfect. New challenges confront us now as they did then. In the spirit of Nelson Rockefeller’s 1962 Godkin Lectures, we need to keep a close eye on how American federalism has or has not adapted to changes and changing conditions in the nation and in the world around us.

Rockefeller Reprise — 1973

A decade after he delivered the Godkin Lectures, Governor Rockefeller updated his analysis when he presented his ideas on Nixon’s so-called “New Federalism” domestic program at a 1973 conference at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which I also attended. After leaving Rockefeller’s staff in 1969 and at Rockefeller’s recommendation, I was appointed as a budget official in the first term of the Nixon Administration and worked on Nixon’s “New Federalism” program. (This is what it was called all the time.) Nixon’s program was announced with great fanfare in a nationally televised presidential address in August 1969. Actually, and by a curious turn of events, I also was a speaker at the Smithsonian conference at which Governor Rockefeller appeared. The sponsors of the event had arranged for Nixon’s principal domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, to address the conference on behalf of the Nixon Administration, but the Watergate scandal had erupted to the point where he could not do so. So, despite the fact that I had left the Nixon Administration in 1972 to return to the Brookings Institution (where I previously worked), I was called into service to present the rationale and goals of the Nixon program.

The interesting thing about Nelson Rockefeller’s talk at this conference was that, unlike the Godkin Lectures, he spoke extemporaneously. The driving force of his talk were the themes he had presented a decade earlier at Harvard, updated by a further decade of gubernatorial experience. He began by saying he was not a fan of Nixon’s program, which disappointed me, but as he picked up steam, he was the same Rocky. He quoted de Tocqueville’s “observation about the individual who was concerned about a problem and, therefore, went across the street to talk to his neighbor, as a result of which they formed a committee.” This, he said, “is illustrative of our national character.” He repeated his theme about the American “heritage of distrust for strong central government.” Tracing the history of the New Deal and the Great Society, Rockefeller also talked about home rule for local governments and how state governments are vital in the domestic public sector, using as examples initiatives he was proud of in New York, including the “rapid expansion” of the State University of New York, his environmental initiatives, reforming welfare, and New York’s leadership in setting up the Medicaid program.

In the latter case, referring to the Medicaid program, the governor told a story that is a favorite of mine and is pure Nelson Rockefeller. When Congress authorized the Medicaid program in 1965, New York State took steps to gain full advantage of it. The state did this to the point where, as Rockefeller recounted, New York’s senior U.S. Senator Jacob Javits called him and said, “For God’s sake, get down here, we’ve got to have a meeting of our delegation.” The reason, said Javits, was that New York was breaking the bank. So, Rockefeller went to Washington, meanwhile telling Javits and company, “I didn’t write this bill,” furthermore complaining that he wasn’t consulted and asserting that what New York was doing was perfectly fair game. “We’re eligible for this money,” he said. The upshot was that the Congress pulled back some in the law, according to Rockefeller, “to keep New York from getting so much money.” That incident was 100 percent Nelson Rockefeller. To this day, New York State is still the champ, if you want to call it that, in terms of taking advantage of the federal Medicaid law.

Referring again to New York State’s activism, Governor Rockefeller said, “As a result of the desire to be responsive, we now have all three levels of government involved in all areas.” He complained that there was a lack of clear understanding of what each level of government was responsible for (a theme, by the way, of Nixon’s “New Federalism”). Using welfare as an example, Rockefeller ended his talk by describing discussions he was having with President Nixon about setting up a commission to reshape the nation’s institutions and goals. This, too, was full Nelson.

The scope of Governor Rockefeller’s 1973 talk was broad, his enthusiasm was contagious, and his message was consistent. A standout theme of both this talk and his Godkin Lectures was that American federalism is and long has been a source of energy and innovation at all levels — local, state, and national. Despite being typically a talking point of conservatives (especially Republicans), history suggests that it is liberals, not conservatives, who should champion the federal form.

How Do We Stand Today?

Fast forward another 25 years, how do we stand today? Conditions have changed in the Internet age, most notably because of the speed at which communication and interaction takes place in the country and the global economy. Everyone is connected. Changes take place in cyber-time. Can America’s political institutions keep up? Can we preserve our heritage of yeasty freedom, openness, and in-depth opportunities for citizen participation and still be able to react swiftly enough to the cacophony of actors and voices we now face?

For me, this suggests the need for inventiveness — that is the key word — for our governmental institutions, including our distinctive brand of American federalism. The centripetal force, speed, and ubiquitousness of information technology have created a disturbing sense of always demanding immediate answers to hard questions. For government, this has concentrated attention on the sound bites of celebrity politicians, good as their intentions and ideas may be. Cyberspace in this way has had a bad effect on government; it has been an impetus to a generalized turn off for complicated matters. Unfortunately, the central and most challenging issues of national life are complicated; they not easily susceptible to “text-sized” short and sweet solutions.

Federalism, with its multiple points for access and activism, is crucial in the domestic public sector. It is more important, with Washington’s governmental processes increasingly preoccupied by international and economic issues. There are 87,578 state and local governments in American — fifty states, 3,000 counties, nearly 20,000 municipal governments, 16,000 town or township governments, over 13,000 school districts, and more than 30,000 special districts that provide vital services like clean water, highways, bridges and public transit, affordable housing, sewerage, public safety in some cases, and leadership for economic and community development.

Sixteen million people work for state and local governments. If you add to that the people who work for nonprofit organizations that provide publicly funded human and community services at the local and ground levels, as many as one out of six workers in the national labor force are in the domestic public sector. Over half a million men and woman serve in elected state and local public offices. This is not small potatoes.

Responsibilities for governmental functions are shared by the federal government and the states in three main ways — for policy making, for finance, and for administration. Typical of many such sharing relationships are arrangements where the national government has a role in making policy and financing its execution, but actual administrative responsibility is lodged with the states, which, in turn, also share in policy making and financing. Over time, the ways these sharing arrangements have been shifted and shaped has resulted in enhancing the role of government in the U.S. economy and society. This has occurred, as mentioned earlier, in the way the American brand of federalism has produced surges of governmental growth and activism. In periods when support for governmental activism was on the wane in the country, initiatives on the part of some (not all) of the states were tested, refined, debugged, and often diffused in the country. Throughout American history, this oscillation of surges of governmental activism, sometimes from the center and sometimes from the periphery, has impelled the development of governmental roles and responsibilities in ways that otherwise would not have occurred in the individualistic political culture of America.

In particular, social programs in the United States have grown in spurts. The pattern and alternation of spurts in social policy making is often overlooked and misunderstood in thinking about the U.S. as having limited government, sort of a Wild West of free enterprise among the world’s major governments. Political scientist Theda Skocpol points out that from 1880 to 1929, 44 states adopted workmen’s compensation laws, 6 adopted old-age pensions, and 44 adopted mothers’ pensions. The same is true for regulations. The regulation of transportation, public utilities, insurance, and corporations were developed over time in many states, often diffused to other states, and in some cases morphing into national governmental responsibilities.

Historians Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager wrote that “the first great battles of the reform movement were fought out in the states.” Examples of state initiatives in domestic policy at the turn of the nineteenth century include compulsory school attendance, vaccination laws, the creation of state boards of education, reforms of political processes, a growing role for state boards of charity, child labor laws, and state regulatory policies in licensing and zoning. In the 1920s, when the country was “Keeping Cool with Coolidge,” states again were the source of initiatives like mothers’ pensions, unemployment insurance, and public welfare. In this way and others, state initiatives planted the seeds and set the precedents for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Later in the 1980s when the pendulum of national social policy swung away from the New Deal philosophy and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, there was again a surge of state-level activism, especially in response to President Ronald Reagan’s 1981-82 cuts in federal domestic spending. States reshaped their counterpart programs to reflect their priorities and increased the funding of programs in areas in which the federal government was pulling back. In doing so, states expanded their influence both vis-à-vis the federal government and in their relationships with local governments and nonprofit organizations. Barry Rabe has documented how state governments developed and continue to advance innovative environmental policies, forming coalitions that cut across regions and partisan divides to combat global warming. By doing so, they have assumed leadership in a field that is usually regarded as assigned to the national government.

Before he left office, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked by The Economist to write about “What I've Learned.” He said “Ten years ago if you had told me I would spend a significant part of my premiership on foreign policy, I would have been surprised, a little shocked and probably somewhat alarmed.” He added that, as it turned out, what he was obliged to do on issues like terrorism, the emergence of China, globalism, and global warming was all, or almost all, consuming. The American president is in the same position — only more so.

The United States is lucky that throughout our history the federal system of shared sovereignty between the federal government and the states has been a force for attending to many domestic needs. Although states vary in their population, size, culture, and wealth, there is no way we are ever going to change their boundaries. They are here to stay. Indeed, there are no perfect ways to define political space, although I do favor changing local boundaries. But keeping states as they are; we have no choice.

The best way to understand and classify countries in the world that have federal systems of government is to study the role of the middle-level governments. They are called states in the United States and Australia, provinces in Canada, cantons in Switzerland, and Länder in Germany. The principal question one should ask about these governmental sandwiches is: What are the powers and responsibilities of middle-level governments in relation to the central government and to local units?

Democratic Role of the States

Federalism is more than a way to provide public services. It also provides that vital sense of community whereby citizens participate in political and public affairs in ways that shape and signal basic values of the society. Federalism, with its multiple levels of government acculturates and trains the men and woman who become leaders in their time. James Madison famously said in Federalist 51 that people are “not angels.” Their diversity reflects human nature and contemporary social values. Some political leaders are dedicated to public service. Others aren’t; they are focused on their personal well-being or cherished special interests. We have a diversity of leaders. Fortunately, all of them are under the klieg lights of media and citizen and interest group scrutiny.

At the same time that we should care about their capacity, we need to care about the democratic role and purposes of the states. Nelson A. Rockefeller summed it up well in his Godkin Lectures:

Let me first make it clear that I do not speak of the federal idea as merely a mechanical or technical or abstract formula for government operations. I refer to the federal ideal broadly as a concept of government by which a sovereign people, for their greater progress and protection, yield a portion of their sovereignty to a political system that has more than one center of sovereign power, energy, and creativity. No one of these centers or levels has the power to destroy another. Under the Constitution, for example, there are two principal centers of government power — state and federal. As a practical matter, local government, by delegation of state authority under the principle of “home rule,” is a third such key center of power. The federal idea, then, is above all an idea of a shared sovereignty at all times responsive to the needs and will of the people in whom sovereignty ultimately resides.

My experience in government and out is that when someone suggests a new initiative for the states to do something, the invariable response is, “Well, what about Mississippi?” I have spent time in Mississippi studying government programs, and I feel sorry for the people there. As Rodney Dangerfield said, “They get no respect.”

Still, in any given policy area, there are bound to be laggard states, or states thought to be laggard. There are two ways to look at this: One is that not every state has to be out front and on top of every problem in the manner that experts or advocates think they should be. The second way to view this is to ask if there are ways to bring laggard states up to some acceptable standard. Let the leading states do it their way. At the same time, don’t countenance laggard states being far behind. I think there are ways we can be, indeed that we have been, institutionally inventive in these terms. This occurs when federal grant-in-aid programs assist all states to deal with a particular problem or conditions on what is in effect a minimum standard basis, while at the same time taking advantage of the creativity and vibrancy of American federalism by allowing some states to exceed this standard.

To recap the argument, the American federal system, with its divided sovereignty, enables the nation (1) to devote attention to domestic needs at times when the national government is preoccupied with international affairs; (2) to serve as a laboratory for developing, testing, and diffusing new responses to governmental challenges; (3) to take account of the diversity of conditions, needs, and values of different parts of the country; and (4) very importantly, to provide venues for citizens to participate in, and take ownership of, the nation’s open and democratic governmental processes. Assigning domestic issues to one central authority would slow the country’s capacity to respond to changed conditions and new challenges. All the while that the central government is deciding what to do to solve a problem, when the Congress is debating and the president is promoting or opposing a new domestic policies, the tendency is for lower-level governments (both state and local governments) to wait to see what happens. Often, they would wait for years, even decades. Over-centralization has its significant downside.

Implementation — The Short Suit of American Government

We need to distinguish between two types of governmental goals — what-to-do (substantive policy goals) and how-to-do-it institutional goals. The latter heavily involve the implementation of public policies. Implementation is the short suit of American government. In 2001, the federal government enacted an ambitious “No Child Left Behind” educational policy. But what did it mean? And how could this promise have been carried out? The confusion between the federal government and the states caused by this new law, and the resulting time lost and gaming of new federal requirements presents a perfect case for the need for thinking and acting institutionally. Implementation matters a great deal.

Earlier, in referring to what is needed today to strengthen our federal form, I referred to “inventiveness” as being a key theme. We are applying this idea about needing to be institutionally inventive in key policy areas of our ongoing research. In particular, we have a study underway, supported by the Spencer and Joyce foundations, on whether in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Law the nation can invent an intergovernmental mechanism so that the national government and the states can work with each other, not against each other, to raise K-12 school standards. This is a huge challenge for the nation in the global economy and labor market in which the educational achievements and skill level of American students are falling behind.

We see the same kind of intergovernmental and institutional inventiveness as needed for health reform. Both the national government and the states have large and consequential responsibilities for delivering and supporting health care services. If as a country we want to provide more care, we absolutely must provide care more efficiently. In the United States, as in other industrial countries, both the central and regional levels of government have to learn from each other and have to work collaboratively in the health field.

Taken together, these two policy domains — education and health — account for half of all domestic governmental spending. A pet peeve of mine (and it is long standing) is that in Washington there is zero — or close to zero — understanding of the federalism and institutional realities of educational and health reform. In another area of our work, an ongoing study of the response of governments in the Gulf region to the 2005 Katrina and Rita hurricanes, we see a similar need for intergovernmental inventiveness.

In a recent book, political scientist Hugh Heclo said Americans as a people “are disposed to distrust institutions.” This is not a new condition. Political institutions are a prominent example of this distrust, but it is not confined to government. Heclo calls broadly for a new commitment to “think and act institutionally.”*

* Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)

Needed — Another Washington Monument

Domestic issues are all too often portrayed in the tempting terms of Washington-focused quick and easy answers. There isn’t time, a taste for, or an understanding of how domestic public policies get carried out. Alan Greenblatt recently made this point an interesting way in an article in Governing magazine. His lead was the lack of a presence of state and local governments in Washington, like that of the president (the White House), the Congress (the Capitol), and the Supreme Court — “palaces in Washington which tourists can easily find.” Visitors, said Greenblatt, “would be hard pressed to find any monumental building housing the other, equally important parts of the American system of government — states and localities.” States and localities, he said “have gradually come to be perceived by the Washington establishment as just another set of lobbyists, seeking favors and handouts whenever they can get them.”

In the 1950s, under President Eisenhower, a commission on intergovernmental relations was established that continued in existence for 40 years, but was abolished in 1996. This low-level commission (formally the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs, ACIR)* was housed in dingy rented offices space, had a small staff, and was never prominent. It had a polyglot structure of represented interests that caused its deliberations to be contentious and as a result its position-taking to be watered down and little noticed. What was lacking then, and has always been lacking in Washington, is an easily identified physical space that reminds people in and around U.S. government, as well as the tourists who visit the nation’s capital, of the Constitutional design. Alas, it tends to be submerged and even misrepresented in “Washington-speak” always about centralization — not only on the part of the press, but often on the part of experts too. The focus all too often is on what the national government needs to do, rather than what is involved in the country in doing it.

* In its most active period, Governor Rockefeller was a leading member of this commission. Among his papers, see especially Rockefeller's January 8, 1969 Message to the Legislature, Part II, "New York's place in the Federal System." Shortly after giving this address, he made a presentation to the President's Council for Urban Affairs on "The Fiscal Crisis in the Federal System." Records provided by Nelson. A Rockefeller Archives and Mary McAniff Kresky.

I wonder if Nelson Rockefeller, a man who loved art and architecture almost as much as he loved politics and government, would have agreed with this and used his amazing political skill and forcefulness to create a public building for federalism in Washington. While a lecture like this is not the place for specification, such a physical space — a center for federalism in the nation’s capital — could serve multiple functions and could house several types of activities. One function would be symbolic.

It was James Madison among the nation’s founders who described American federalism as a “great composition” of shared sovereignty on the part of the central government and the states as contemplated in the U.S. Constitution, which Madison more than any other person conceptualized and influenced. Although there already is a building in Washington, part of the Library of Congress, named after Madison, the nation’s fourth president. But it is the name of a building more than a place for recognition of what Madison stood for, or in honor of his role as the Father of the United States Constitution. A Madison Center in Washington could be both a museum for federalism (there, I said it) and a place for housing a successor to Eisenhower’s intergovernmental commission, but with a better, clearer mission — indeed a knowledge-building, knowledge-sharing, knowledge-disseminating role in and for American government.

A Madison Center for Federalism could be located near the Madison building of the Library of Congress, with linkages to the Library and the history on the founding of the American nation. Nelson Rockefeller was both a man of ideas and a “doer,” a man of action. He said in his Godkin Lectures, “The power of the federal idea rests, in important part, upon the opportunity for action.”

So, a thought experiment is appropriate as the closing comment to this lecture: Might it have been fitting for Nelson Rockefeller, had he continued to serve as vice president of the United States, to have led the charge to build a Madison Center in Washington “if” (and this is a big if) Gerald Ford had kept him on the ticket and won the 1976 election, as many people think he would have. Ford himself said he regretted “not sticking with Nelson Rockefeller as his 1976 running mate.” *

* See Thomas M. DeFrank, Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.