In government, no one is to blame. For anything. Ever. Here's why, captured in a phrase I hope you will remember: "phony federalism."
It is important because in the next several weeks policymakers will be asked whether to implement Obamacare by developing a state insurance exchange or whether to expand Medicaid. These issues are, by now, familiar to you because I and others have spoken at length about them.
Federalism is the notion that states have certain powers that the federal government does not. Such a constitutionally-imposed relationship prevents federal officials from screwing around in issues best left to state governments.
Phony federalism, on the other hand, is the notion that the state has control when really the control rests entirely with the federal government. Phony federalism is a Jedi Mind Trick, in which federal bureaucrats con state officials into believing they're driving the car when, in reality, the gas, brake and steering wheel are operated from Washington, D.C.
Phony federalism is the notion that the state is somehow in charge because the sign out in front of a building housing a state agency says "State of Idaho" on it. And the politicians who either buy or sell phony federalism will tell you that the sign in front of an agency matters the most.
In the case of a health insurance exchange, for example, we are told that if the state develops the government agency, "Idahoans will be in charge" and "we will be masters of our own destiny," or some other familiar rubbish-laden statement.
Phony federalism also allows bad policy to escape accountability. The state insurance exchange will, by the federal government's rules, have to determine who will receive federal tax assistance for insurance premiums, and for identifying which companies have failed to provide insurance to employees.
If an Idaho resident--let's call him Bob—is upset with how the exchange has performed, that resident will likely call the state exchange and complain. The exchange, however, will be able to accurately report back to Bob that the state agency was merely following federal orders. This will likely anger Bob, who might call the supervising federal agency, in this case, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and complain. But, of course, HHS will pass the buck back, and the blame, to the state agency.
Bob will likely then call his state lawmakers who will, no doubt, direct Bob to call his member of Congress. And, you guessed it, his member of Congress will instruct Bob to complain to his state lawmakers. As a popular 1985 song intoned, "no one ever is to blame."
And this, my friends, is what some Idaho officials would like desperately to run. But why?
For years, the states have taken more than their share of blame for phony federalism. From food stamps to Medicaid to environmental protection regulations, state officials have done the bidding of the folks in Washington, D.C., while they avoid blame and rack up massive debt at the expense of the national economy. And now, we are being asked to do it all over again via Obamacare.
If Congress really wants Obamacare so badly, let 'em have it. Then we will really know who is to blame when it collapses onto itself.