It is rare to encounter someone who does not have a strong opinion or feel some angst about current affairs in Washington, D.C. Regardless of party or feelings toward President Donald Trump, the pitch of public debate is elevated.
The federal government affects our lives in numerous ways, its economic impact often at the heart of public opinion. But the true strength of our Republic lies in the inherent genius of our federal system.
The Founders envisioned the United States' government as a system of checks and balances. The power “surrendered by the people” was to be divided between two sovereign state and federal governments. With so much focus by the media on Trump and the Congress, it is more important than ever that we question the relationship between the federal government and our country's economic success.
After spending decades working in both federal and state government, I have come to appreciate the critical role the states play in the strength and stability of both our national political system and economy.
My early career was spent serving Dan Quayle in both the U.S. Senate and the White House. After leaving Washington, somewhat disillusioned by the inability of our centralized federal government to deliver on promises and affect positive change, I returned to Indiana as a private-practice lawyer.
However, the call to public service remained strong, leading to a 15-year stint in state government culminating in the office of the attorney general. From this vantage point, as the “other sovereign” in our federal system, day-to-day governing became more tangible and my hope was restored in the potential for effective leadership.
In states and localities, those entities closest to the people, government actions have potent results. The vast majority of civil and criminal justice occurs at this level; state and local taxes, laws and regulations shape the daily lives of citizens, families and corporations.
Much as a diversified investment portfolio helps to manage economic risks, so too does the diversity of various state policies, tax structures and regulatory systems help determine economic outcomes.
Changes at the state and local level are tangible for people; they experience their impacts directly. While they are sometimes criticized as a “crazy patchwork,” I have come to understand our states as “laboratories of democracy,” each with their own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. However, the states' cumulative strength allows our nation to withstand the self-evident failures and prevarications of our federal government.
Yet, even with the ability of the states to protect the safety and welfare of their citizens, the federal government lurks in the background, threatening to further encroach on state sovereignty through expansion of federal programs and administrative agencies.
During my time in Washington, President Ronald Reagan called our nation “a shining city upon a hill.” Reagan's optimism and restoration of public confidence in the federal government were arguably based in part upon a resurgent economy. Nearly every president before or since has taken credit for a strong economy while conferring on (or gladly sharing with) Congress some amount of blame for any weaknesses. Reagan, like Trump, dominated discussions in Washington.
While today's discussions about Washington seem only to divide, perhaps it is time to redirect the conversation and our energies to the 50 state governments. In an era of partisan division and much disenchantment with the federal government, there is a glimmer of hope and reassurance that our nation will still be held together by these diverse, if not always united, states.
Greg Zoeller is former Indiana attorney general.