What’s the Repub principle?

Making government smaller and transferring responsibilities from the feds to the states aren’t really the same thing. But did you ever notice how Repubs tend to use them interchangeably?

Let’s put a couple of answers from the Sunday morning debate transcript – one from Rick Santorum and one from Mitt Romney – under the microscope to make the point.

Moderator David Gregory asked Rick Santorum to name three things he would do to shrink government that would impose some pain on current beneficiaries of federal programs.

Santorum started with something that took the question seriously. He wants to reduce entitlement benefits for wealthier recipients. (There is already some means-testing of Social Security and Medicare, but presumably he wants more. Personally, that’s something I would consider.) But then Santorum segued into this:

Santorum: “Foods stamps is another place.  We gotta block grant and send it back to the states, just like I did on welfare reform.  Do the same thing with Medicare.  Those three programs.  We gotta– and– and– and including– housing programs, block grant them, send it back to the states, require work and put a time limit.”

Okay, I’m not trying to call attention to his syntax. I take it he meant that the three programs he would “block grant and send to the states” are food stamps, Medicare and housing programs.

Two problems. If the feds simply send the same amount of money to the states and let them administer the programs, that won’t save any money unless you assume that states can do the same job more efficiently which, so far as I know, is wishful thinking. And secondly, despite the inherently greater efficiency and familiarity with local mores that Santorum assumes resides in the states, he nonetheless wants the federal block grants to come with strings in the form of “require work and put a time limit.”

 Now here’s Romney:

MITT ROMNEY: “Well, what– what we don’t need is to have– a federal government saying, “We’re gonna solve all the problems of poverty– across the entire country.”  Because the– what it means to be poor in Massachusetts is different than Montana, Mississippi and other places in the country. And that’s why these programs, all these federal programs that are bundled to help people and make sure we have a safety net, need to be brought together and sent back to the states.

And let states that are closest to the needs of their own people craft the programs that are d– able to deal with their– the needs of those folks.  So you– you– whether it’s food stamps and housing vouchers, they’re certainly on the list, but certainly Medicaid– home– home heating oil– support.  What unfortunately happens is with all the multiplicity of federal programs, you have massive overhead, with government bureaucrats in Washington administering all these programs, very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.

 These– they– government– folks in Washington keep building program after program.  It’s time to say, “Enough of that.”  Let’s get the money back to the states, the way the Constitution intended, and let states care for their own people, in the way they feel best.”

As someone who follows the Constitutional stuff closely, it was that last bit that got me going.

The tenthers and states’ righters who predominate on the Republican right have a reasonable historical argument that the modern federal government does a great many things that weren’t in the minds of the framers in 1787. But if you really believe the tenther stuff about federal power being limited to the relatively few things that are explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, then most federal activity goes away, including a lot of things that nobody except maybe Ron Paul to suggest abolishing.

The Constitution doesn’t mention health insurance or pensions or food stamps. It does authorize Congress to do things that promote the “general welfare.” But if you’re not willing to accept that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, disaster relief, home heating fuel subsidies for the poor in the winter, etc. etc. are covered by the general welfare language, then you cannot find anything to suggest that the Constitution empowers the federal government to act as a tax collector for the states and just send them money (presumably redistributing it along the way from the wealthier states to the poor ones) to use for those same purposes.

The only thing that would really make sense for a sincere Tenther would be to say that the feds should get out of all those areas and let each state decide for itself whether it wants to do anything about health, education, welfare or incomes for old people or just let the freedom handle it.

When Romney says block grants to the states is “what the Constitution intended,” what explicit Constitutional provision could he possibly be talking about?

To be perfectly blunt, if the righty/tenther/Tea Partiers are serious in what they constantly say about the Constitution, they really need to level with us and admit that what they advocate is not reform all those federal programs but doing away with them.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/09/2012 - 04:21 pm.

    “The only thing that would really make sense for a sincere Tenther would be to say that the feds should get out of all those areas and let each state decide for itself whether it wants to do anything about health, education, welfare or incomes for old people or just let the freedom handle it.”

    I agree. And that’s exactly what most conservatives would tell you they believe. The problem is that these people are running for president and they have described compromise solutions that won’t scare the great unwashed. They get to make the “government-closer-to-the-people” argument without scaring the recipients of the nanny state’s largess into doing something foolish like voting for the democrat.

    And that’s because it’s hard enough for a conservataive to get his message out there without the democrats and a democrat-friendly press establishment distorting it (see Paul Ryan pushing a wheel-chaired old lady off a cliff).

    So yes, Eric, your instincts are correct. Election year politics is preventing everyone from being fully honest because they want to win. The only thing that would fix that dilemma would be an honest press corp, and that’s not going to happen when their guy is in jeopardy of losing.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 01/09/2012 - 05:17 pm.

    Is everyone supposed to suspend their disbelief for the rest of the election season while the media pretends these kinds of proposals are serious? No one takes these things seriously. We all assume they are just saying stuff to win votes. We disagree about what will turn out to be the lies and what will turn out to be for real.

    The last Republican to propose “block grants” to the states for federal programs was Richard Nixon. We ended up with Community Development Block Grants with a huge local bureaucracy in addition to the federal bureaucracy.

    Devolving real power to the states is not likely to happen. The idea that guys like Santorum are not going to want to tell the states how to spend the money is pure fantasy. If some state decides it wants to reduce costs by paying for abortion and contraception, Santorum will quickly decide the states shouldn’t be making that decision for themselves.

    Of course you could not send the states money. Minnesota would certainly benefit from letting the residents of Florida pay pension and medicare costs for all those retirees. I am not sure how that would work … but this is the silly season so it doesn’t matter.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/09/2012 - 06:38 pm.

    I see your point Eric.

    What these guys have missed is that if the most efficient distribution is state by state, or even if the distribution is no worse than from DC, we simply need to transfer the taxes we pay to the Fed back to the states before they ever get sent to the IRS.

    Cut out 10,000 middle men.

    Also, I thought that Clinton instituted time limits and work requirements for welfare recipients….has Obama undone his good work?

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/09/2012 - 07:23 pm.

    I agree, Dennis–
    Only a friendly press corp would let people like Romney, Gingrinch and Santorum be taken seriously.

  5. Submitted by Peter Soulen on 01/09/2012 - 07:35 pm.

    “Election year politics is preventing everyone from being fully honest because they want to win. The only thing that would fix that dilemma would be an honest press corp, (sic)…”

    Why not just get rid of the “great unwashed” instead?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/09/2012 - 09:19 pm.


    I wonder if you have any idea of the monumental hubris that is evidenced by observing that someone is “serious” when saying something with which one agrees and that deviating from that comforting agreement signals a segue into something less.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/09/2012 - 09:21 pm.


    There are certain work-related requirements attached to the receipt of food stamps (SNAPS or supplemental nutrition assistance program) but there are no time limits on the receipt of these benefits at present. The SNAPS work requirements are not as stringent as those implemented in welfare (TANF or temporary assistance for needy families) reform efforts some years ago, however.

    SNAPS benefits are uniform nationally and there may be some merit to the idea of regionalizing those. One problem, however, is that the actual cost of living varies dramatically even within states. The additional administrative costs of delineating and administering separate benefit regions, whether nationally or at the state level, may well exceed any savings. It could also lead to exactly what so many wrongly believe happens today: benefit shopping, in which people relocate in the belief that they will receive higher beneftis and thus fare better in a new location.

    While I have very little confidence in what the Feds label the poverty level, it’s worth noting that the absolute number of poor in this country dropped from 40 million (about 23% of the population) in 1959 to about 24 million by 1973 and then began to climb again. By 1993, the total was back to 40 million but the percentage was about where it is today: 15%. Between 1993 and 2010, it fell from 15% to a low of 11.1% before ramping back up to 15% in 2010. I’ll let others argue about the causes of these changes.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/09/2012 - 10:09 pm.

    I’m with Paul Brandon (#4), but Mr. Swift’s last point is correct. Time limits and work requirements remain as part of the much smaller, Clinton-reformed welfare program that currently exists. In this, as in many other areas, Mr. Santorum is sadly uninformed.

    My experience in working with CDBG (Community Development Block Grants, but who wants to write that out with any frequency? We used CDBG almost as if it were a word) was that there might have been some regional bureaucracy – I can’t speak to that, not having any evidence one way or the other – but at least in the county and city where I was involved, there was no “huge local bureaucracy.” The same person who was in charge of other community welfare programs also supervised the CDBG grant money awards, and a committee of local citizen/volunteers meticulously went through every proposal each year that asked for CDBG dollars, rank-ordered them, and then provided a list of which proposals should be funded. Cost to taxpayers, practically zero, since the city community welfare person already had a full plate, and the only perk to citizens that participated on the committee was a catered, sandwich-style meal when the meeting ran from 3:30 PM to 9 PM.

    That said, Mr. Williams’ 3rd paragraph seems on the mark.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/09/2012 - 10:48 pm.

    We’ll be seeing a lot of this in years to come. The social spending which is growing fast is almost all transfers from the working young to the idle old. You can’t be a responsible party of government while claiming that Medicare will never change.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2012 - 09:22 am.

    Richard #9–
    Don’t leave out the transfer from the working young to the unemployed young; a consequent of the Great Recession.

  11. Submitted by Rich Ahrens on 01/10/2012 - 09:55 am.


    I served on one of those citizen committees overseeing CDBGs in the 70s, and all the experience did was to convince me that local control is subject to all sorts of corruption. After much work, we recommended a list of projects focusing on paving unpaved city streets and extending sewer lines into parts of town that had been overlooked due in part to racial segregation.

    The mayor responded by rejecting the recommendations, dismissing the committee, and appointing his handpicked replacement committee. (The original committee was elected at a community meeting.) And they conveniently recommended spending the money to purchase an empty block of land to build a parking lot. Conveniently, the lot was located across the street from a business owned by the mayor’s largest financial supporter. He also owned the lot. So the crony made off with the grant money for his lot and got expanded parking for his business. Nice.

    (A few years later, the same businessman was the state campaign chairman for Reagan. Convenient.)

  12. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/10/2012 - 12:10 pm.

    Nevertheless, Rich, it’s easier to run a local guy out of town on a rail than one 1500 miles away in Washington.

  13. Submitted by MIke Maharrey on 01/10/2012 - 06:40 pm.

    Yes, this is what a sincere “Tenther” believes.

    The feds should get out of all those areas and let each state decide for itself whether it wants to do anything about health, education, welfare or incomes for old people or just let the freedom handle it.

    As for “general welfare”, the clause merely means that federal taxing and spending can only be used for purposes that benefit all of the United States, as opposed to specific states, regions or interest groups. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” makes the meaning clear.

    “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

    “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”

  14. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/10/2012 - 07:10 pm.

    The Republicans have a principle? How can anybody tell?

  15. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/11/2012 - 11:03 am.

    Actually, the Repubs are more interested in skimming the interest off of other people’s principal.

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