The Bush Legacy: The Federalization of America

November 3, 2008

(Note to editors: Two leads appear below, one for Election Day publication, the other for Nov. 5 and thereafter.)
(Nov. 4) If you plan to vote for change at the polls today, here’s news that may surprise you. The Bush administration has done more to change the role of government and its relationship with citizens than any president since the New Deal.

(Nov. 5 and thereafter) If you voted for change in Tuesday’s election, here’s a news flash: You already got it. Long before you went to the polls, the Bush administration had done more to change the role of government and its relationship with citizens than any president since the New Deal.
This is the defining irony of Bush’s tenure. A purportedly conservative Republican used his constitutional powers and bully pulpit to make the federal government far more involved in our daily lives.
Socialism? Not quite. But it would be fair to describe the Bush legacy as one of increased federalization of America.
Bush took the first steps down this path after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among many pieces of “reaction legislation,” Congress passed and Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which put federal employees in charge of airport security screening and brought us the rules that stop us from taking onto airplanes wrapped Christmas presents, more than 3 ounces of Neosporin or our own water bottles.
Next Bush federalized schools. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was the most sweeping federal mandate affecting public schools since LBJ’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Bush called it  “the cornerstone of my administration.”
Education policy is historically the job of state and local government. Yet this law placed specific demands on school districts and required consequences and penalties for those that fail to make adequate progress each year. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the law “is responsible for much of the 58 percent inflation-adjusted increase in education spending from 2001 through 2008.”
Federal spending has risen twice as much under Bush as under President Clinton, according to the Heritage report, “Federal Spending by the Numbers 2008.” This year, the feds will spend $25,117 per household compared to $20,848 in 2001. Contrary to popular belief that Bush has slashed anti-poverty programs, spending on these has gone up 56 percent to a record 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The 2005 highway bill, costing $286 billion over six years, was the priciest highway bill ever. Don’t forget the 2003 Medicare drug entitlement program, which will cost $78.3 billion over the next decade.
The surge in spending can’t be blamed on Democrats who regained control of Congress in 2006. Republicans spent wildly long before Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House. For example, spending on Pell Grants grew nearly 50 percent from $8.7 billion in 2001 to $13 billion in 2006.
For free-market conservatives, the Bush administration’s $700-billion Wall Street rescue plan has been the most dramatic example of federalization.
Under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Plan, the government will make equity investments in banks, guarantee some of their bad debt and buy troubled assets, supposedly to keep loans flowing to American business and consumers. If it weren’t for the fact corporate participation in the bailout is voluntary, it would look an awful lot like Harry Truman’s attempt to nationalize the steel industry in 1952.
According to a recent report on the bailout provisions, taxpayer money may also be used to buy stakes in life insurance companies and could even facilitate the merger of General Motors and Chrysler. It’s hard to see how a conservative president could encourage so much political interference in the financial system that is the heart of our capitalist economy.
The Washington Post reported last week that Bush is using his final months in office to enact hundreds of federal regulations, a practice used by many lame duck presidents in an effort to leave one last imprint on the federal government. Many of these, the newspaper said, would lift or weaken pollution restraints on private industry, including power plants, mines and farms.
Perhaps it’s a last ditch effort by Bush to be remembered as a defender of free markets. If so, it’s too little, too late. The Washington Times said it well in an Oct. 24 political piece: “Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago.”

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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