Fiscal plague,
information dust,
piled over everyone,
everyone of us.

Stephen Malkmus, “Solid Silk”

I’m writing this after a walk along the Milwaukee River in dying pink sunlight. An election will be held on Tuesday in which thousands of people in this city will be crammed into only five polling places. Everyone knows the consequences of this and is calling for a delay. The Democratic Governor has attempted to avoid responsibility. He has deferred to courts, who can’t act, and the legislature, whose Republican leaders refuse to. The melodies sounded during the legislature’s 2018 power grab return now in a pendulous latter movement.

An election minus procedure. An election minus voters. An election that kills voters.

On the balconies of the apartments above me, faint music played and people were wrapped in Wisconsin Badgers blankets, staring out at the river. Placid water, empty boats at their moorings, a few angry geese.

Are we on the precipice of a national political reconstruction? Obviously. This isn’t a matter of forecasting the likelihood of specific events. Though the terminus is invisible, the train is already moving. Everything that institutionalists have shunted into the error term––ideas, agency, movement, the music of chance––is in full view. There is, once more, such a thing as society. It exists not as a broadband network, as Will Davies argues, but as a set of already-existing materials waiting to be repurposed.

And yet the old language hangs on, like a kite circling in slowing wind. Chris Maisano’s great little Jacobin essay bears the headline “The American Federalist System Is Killing Our Ability to Respond to Coronavirus.” He’s obviously right. States are in ruthless bidding wars with one another for ventilators and respirators. Negative externalities from loose stay-at-home orders abound. Constrained by balanced-budget requirements, states will soon experience a massive fiscal contraction. The so-called patchwork of social protections is less a quilt than a filthy, mottled rag. “Like the great crises of the past,” Maisano concludes, the pandemic has “laid bare the fundamental failures of our archaic and dysfunctional institutions.” These failures, however, are less the product of any “American Federalist System” than of the absence of a system––or of an arrangement whose elements simply cannot be coordinated with one another.

Political scientists and policy analysts struggle to keep up with the latest developments in state and nation––compiling datasets on legislative actions to fight the pandemic and to prepare for the economic calamity. But their efforts to sort things out and make them count only further expose the underlying fear: a federal system does not exist. Austerity has decoupled the technical devices, material relations, and linguistic transformations that allowed the idea of a federal system to emerge.

The best example of the non-system properties of American federalism in recent days is the oncoming fiscal crisis in the states. Moody’s Analytics PowerPoints are starting to look like Bruno Latour monographs, with slides titled: “The Virus Will Tell Us How Long This Is”. The gloomiest estimates: a 9 percent decline in real GDP, peak-to-trough. Fiscal analysts in the basements of state capitol buildings around the country are in a state of panic. As demands for services rise, Michigan alone is projecting $4 billion in revenue loss by 2021 and is now tapping into its Budget Stabilization Fund. The state can access only about 25 percent at a time. Withdrawing any more will require legislative approval.

Moody’s Analytics presentation for the National Conference of State Legislatures

Yet as states around the country––constrained by tight balanced-budget rules and limitations on taxation and expenditures––consider how they will maintain already paltry social supports, Congress has cobbled together piecemeal aid. The CARES Act provides only for immediate disaster relief, stabilization funds for education systems, and direct support of public health efforts. It is hardly the sort of countercyclical shock-absorber that will allow states to weather the crisis without engaging in aggressive austerity measures. And forthcoming congressional aid packages are already beset by a battle over eliminating the cap on State and Local Tax deductions imposed by Republicans’ 2017 tax reform. It looks like states will have to wait for the congressional stars to align––and for credit-claiming opportunities to emerge––before they get their scraps.

If a federal “system” existed, it wouldn’t look like this. Instead of leaving states to fend for themselves, it might contain macro-economic arrangements that promote resilience. Federal policies might take into account how crises threaten the integrity of state governments and automatically trigger counter-cyclical relief. Prior to the emergence of the fiscal austerity regime in the late 1970s, proposals for a more systematic arrangement––a federal system worthy of the name––were easy to find. For the better part of fifty years, the main characters in my current book project aggressively promoted the idea that federalism could be managed comprehensively. Borrowing ideas from domestic and international sources, the people I call “Madison’s engineers” advocated routine interaction between levels of government, efforts to map the intergovernmental effects of legislation, and legislation that––almost hydraulically––compensated for gaps in institutional capacity.

Council on Intergovernmental Relations (Henry County, Indiana), c. 1948

You can find these ideas in legislation like the Antirecession Fiscal Assistance Program (ARFA). Created by Congress in 1976 following what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression, ARFA was designed as an automatic stabilizer for state governments in the midst of a recession that would expand as conditions worsened and contract as they improved (some called it an “accordion” program). When the national unemployment rate exceeded 6 percent, ARFA kicked in. Under the program, state and local governments received automatic payments, two thirds of which went to local governments, based on population and unemployment rates. As the national unemployment rate increased, so too did ARFA dollars.

Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1978 Report on Countercyclical Aid

Two years after ARFA went into effect, the US Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) recommended that the law be made permanent. The federal government, the Commission argued, had an important role to play in antirecession activity, especially given the massive contributions of state and local spending to GDP. Yet in the absence of an automatic program, Washington could not be relied on to deliver timely support to the states:

This lack of timeliness can be traced in large part to the understandable fear of the Administration in power that an early request to Congress for countercyclical legislation would do more harm than good. It would be widely interpreted by the public as an admission of the Administration’s inability to keep the economy on the track and that the nation would soon confront another major recession. In fact, the announcement itself could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, an Administration is likely to wait until the situation becomes very serious before recommending corrective action.

Relying on this bit of political wisdom, the ACIR recommended that Congress make ARFA permanent in conjunction with a permanent program of Local Public Works that would, like ARFA, respond and contract in response to the recession. The Commission’s outgoing chairman, Robert Merriam, dissented from the recommendations — but largely because the report had not considered the inadequacies of current unemployment figures and failed to consider how the stabilization scheme would interact with the existing program of general revenue sharing.

Within a decade, austerity politics would eliminate general revenue sharing itself and foreclose anything like an automatic system of shock absorbers for federalism. The ACIR, like other knowledge-producing entities, was gradually starved for resources, relocated, and downsized. Its colorfully designed reports were ultimately replaced by dull lithographs. Print-runs and distribution declined. And in 1996, a Republican Congress zeroed out its budget. Fiscal plagues loomed, but the federal system itself had all but disappeared.

System language still haunts us––the ghost of something that is gone or might have been. But what remains is the chaos of a non-system, tolerable only because it cannot be readily converted into language.

Associate Professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)