Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks to the National Governors' Conference

July 06, 1976

Since 1945, when President Roosevelt died, no former governor served in the White House.

In the 30 years following President Roosevelt's death, we have seen a steady expansion of the role of the federal government. It has been an era of some good beginnings, and of some great national triumphs—in education, health care and social services for the indigent and elderly, and civil rights. It was an era in which the federal government broadened the opportunities for millions of Americans. We can be proud of those achievements, although a great deal remains to be done.

But it was not a great era for federal-state relations, nor was it a great period for the states themselves. As the federal government assumed important new responsibilities, too often programs were enacted which denied the diversity of American life, which created a growing bureaucracy, and which robbed state and local governments of flexibility in responding to local problems.

Too often, the states were caught in a financial squeeze as the federal government cut back on funds for vital programs which the federal government itself had created.

We will never know whether a gubernatorial viewpoint would have alerted a President to the erosion in the role of the states. But there is a new humility today about the federal government's ability to legislate problems away. There is a new understanding that often the machinery of government impedes our common objectives.

The states need a compassionate partner in Washington—a partner that will provide predictable, adequate assistance to enable states to meet their legitimate needs. But they also need an efficient partner in Washington— a partner that understands the virtues of forbearance, a partner that knows what the states can do as well as what they cannot.

No assembly of men and women in America understands more clearly than you do the defects of the present relationship, and nobody wants more than you to forge a new balanced partnership.

I know, because I have shared your experiences and your frustrations— but, most importantly, I have also shared your dreams.

I promise you that, if I am fortunate enough to be nominated and elected as President, I will not preside over an administration which ignores the lessons of my own personal experience. Last week I made a similar pledge to the mayors and today, as part of that same programmatic approach to government reform, I pledge to you, if elected, a sensitive ally in the White House, and I pledge to work with you to bring about a restoration of true federalism.

Historically, the states have been the laboratories of public policy. They have pioneered management, economic, labor, and social programs which have been models for later federal programs. The states should serve as 50 independent experiments, each with its distinctive qualities and conditions, each providing a unique experience upon which federal and other state officials can draw. Instead, they are trapped between the federal bureaucracy and the state and local bureaucracies which you have been forced to create to cope with all the federal programs.

For too long, Woodrow Wilson's prescription that the states be "laboratories for experimentation" has failed to be a consistent objective of federal policy. For too long, federal programs have put the states in a strait jacket which has hampered local initiative. Yet, states in recent years have been the most creative segment of government.

The national government might have seen earlier the virtues of regional compacts, sunshine and sunset laws, zero-base budgeting and other reforms recently initiated by many of you at the state level, and only now being considered in Washington.

For too long, the maze of restrictive federal programs has denied the diversity of life in this nation. Instead of rejoicing in pluralism, the federal bureaucracy in effect negated it with programs which were written as if the entire United States were less diverse than the State of Pennsylvania.

I see state governments not as impediments, but as effective instruments in achieving the objectives we share.

After 18 months of campaigning, the instincts with which I began this campaign have been reinforced, and I have no intention of rejecting my own experience now. The most important commitment I can make to you is a simple one. If I am elected President, I will review every appointment, examine every program, to build an attitude of respect for the role of state government into the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy.

We will have a government structure that encourages rather than stifles local flexibility. I believe it is time that the federal government recognized that states and localities retain a special knowledge of local problems, and that responsive and flexible state and local leadership is essential to representative government in this nation.

The first requirement is to improve the coordination of federal activities as they relate to each state.

The structure and missions of the various federal agencies and programs are often overlapping and uncoordinated, making it difficult for private citizens and public officials alike to resolve an individual or a community':" problems.

If elected President, I intend first to upgrade the role of regional councils representing the federal government to assist state and local officials, as well as private citizens, in dealing with federal agencies on any matter involving a federal question that might arise. These offices will be empowered to review conflicts among the various federal agencies and will have speedy access to the highest levels of the federal government.

Second, I will establish a system in the Executive Office of the President which enables the President to keep abreast of local initiatives, and which permits state and local officials to consult with the highest levels of the federal government on the full range of their concerns. I seek your assistance and advice in designing a machinery to meet that need, and to insure that consultations occur regularly.

Third, to the extent possible, we have to begin centralizing federal activities within each city in one location. The outposts of the federal government should be accessible to ordinary citizens when they need assistance, so that "one stop" federal service is available.

Not only will we try to improve the relationship of the separate states to the federal government, but the federal government needs to make it easier for states to develop cooperative mechanisms to deal with regional problems.

The states have already begun to look beyond their borders to solve common regional problems. They have done this around the country in the Midwest, in the Great Lakes Commission which has recently emphasized the cleanup of that great natural resource; in the western states, the Interstate Nuclear Board has been working on the problems of the development of nuclear power for the region; in the South, there is the Southern Growth Policies Board working for regional economic growth. These are only a few examples. Most recently, there is the coalition of northeastern governors trying to meet the problems of revitalizing the economy of that region.

But there is still more that might be done. The use of the natural resources of one region for the benefit of the nation can leave that region with the permanent negative impacts of that exploitation. The federal government and the affected region must find ways to see that those consequences are avoided, and that the hidden costs of seeing to it are equitably shared. If the coal beds of the country are used, the results of that process should return the land for other uses—for future generations. And the costs should not be only a local problem.

The place to start with these solutions is the administrative reform which we must accomplish in Washington.

A balanced national partnership must, to the greatest degree possible, grant to the local governments the administrative freedom needed for innovative, creative programing.

Between the mid-1950's and this year, the number of categorical grant programs grew from 150 to more than 1,600, each with its own administrative bureaucracy, its own restrictive conditions, individual application procedures, review conditions and funding priorities.

These categorical grants can often serve important (unctions. On a program of national dimensions, such grants can maximize local involvement in confronting national problems.

In practice, however, the proliferation of grants has built an irrational structure, which has often limited local initiative and fragmented local efforts toward sound fiscal planning.

It is important to attach conditions to programs which insure that funds are directed toward the beneficiaries intended by Congress and the President. But too often programs designed for the ghetto families have been shifted to further benefit affluent families whose political influence can prevail.

To achieve a balanced national partnership, I intend to undertake a review, beginning this year and involving full consultation with you as governors and with local officials and congressional leaders, to determine in which instances consolidation of categorical grants would be desirable.

That process of consolidation will insure that the federal structure is organized to allow localities maximum flexibility in delivering services within the framework of national standards. Consolidation must not and will not be an excuse to reduce needed federal assistance, or to change the distribution of benefits so as to discriminate against those individuals with the greatest need.

If a balanced partnership is to prevail, it is necessary that governors and mayors be involved, not only in the review of categorical grants, but in the formulation of legislation and the promulgation of regulations as well. Usually, state officials receive their first notice of proposed rules when they are printed in the Federal Register. It is time that we recognized that we have become a government of regulations rather than laws; reform will be empty unless it is accompanied by a comprehensive review of existing regulations and the implementation of procedures to assure future state and local involvement in the early drafting of rules and regulations.

I do not underestimate the difficulties we will face in achieving regulatory reform, but we must persevere. The cost of excessive regulation goes beyond higher consumer price. Federal regulatory requirements have bureaucratized the private sector itself. Only large businesses can afford the cost of the internal bureaucracies that they must maintain to meet complex federal standards. The federal regulatory environment must be comprehensively reviewed to assure that it does not stimulate increased concentration of private economic power in a few hands.

Finally, federal budget policy must become more predictable. Predicting state revenues with accuracy is difficult under any circumstances, but the federal government can at least carry its burden by assuring that it meets commitments that it has previously made. Three-year federal budgeting will permit more effective planning by the states. A lawsuit has just successfully challenged the arbitrary food stamp cutbacks proposed by the Ford Administration. With an administration committed to predictable and compassionate policy making, 3-year budgeting, and long-term planning, such litigation should not be necessary.

There is no simple rule to follow in determining the proper role of the federal government in addressing a problem. In some areas, such as welfare reform, the federal government must assume increased responsibility. In establishing regional alliances, federal, state, and local government should serve as equal partners. In other areas, such as transportation, where some of the categorical grant programs are too restrictive, state and local discretion must be increased. What we are seeking is not a wholesale cutback of federal programs but a judicious consolidation and reoiganization which allows states to meet their needs without undermining legitimate national objectives.

A major item on your agenda is welfare reform. Throughout my campaign, I have stressed the urgent need for a complete overhaul of our nation's welfare system.

Our present system is a failure deplored alike by those who pay for it, those who administer it, and those who supposedly benefit from it.

We all know of the need to remove from our welfare rolls those individuals who are ineligible for, or are not in need of, assistance. We have all read about the deplorable inefficiency which permeates our welfare systems. We know of the inequities which characterize many of our welfare programs ; we know, for example, that where one lives is often more important than what one needs in getting assistance. We also know that working for a living and staying with one's family can sometimes deprive that person's family of benefits otherwise available.

You here also understand, perhaps better than most, how the present system is bankrupting both our cities and our states. As your welfare reform task force report points out, in fiscal year 1977, combined federal, state, and local costs of public assistance are projected to be about $25 billion. Medical assistance costs and food stamps raise this figure to almost double— $47 billion. Because of existing federal laws and standards, this burden is not equally distributed among states. In some counties, more than 50 percent of county revenue goes toward welfare purposes.

Continuing increases in costs are denying states and local areas the flexibility they need to meet the needs of our people.

This must be changed.

I am particularly pleased by the work of the National Governors' Conference in this area and of your interest in joining with other governmental units, the Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the Conference of State Legislators, to develop a common position on welfare reform. I hope to work closely with you in this effort and to begin discussions with you and other groups as part of a development of a specific welfare reform proposal. What I want to share with you today are the basic principles which I believe should form the framework for welfare reform.

About 10 percent of those on welfare are able to work full-time and they should be offered job training and jobs. Any such person who refuses training or employment should not receive further welfare benefits.

The other 90 percent of the people on welfare are children, persons with dependent children, old people, handicapped people, or persons otherwise unable to work full-time. They should be treated with compassion and respect.

We should have a simpler national welfare program, with one fairly uniform standard of payment, adjusted to the extent feasible for cost-of-living differences by areas and with strong work incentives built in. In no case should the level of benefits make not working more attractive than working. And we should have welfare rules that strengthen families rather than divide families. Local governments should not be burdened with the cost of welfare, and my goal would also include the phased reduction of the states' share as soon as that is financially feasible.

Simultaneously with welfare reform, there needs to be a major restructuring of state employment offices, existing job training and job creation programs in order to insure that all those who want to work can work. The federal welfare reform proposal should be developed in the context of reform of other related programs.

I believe we are competent enough to create a welfare program that is both efficient and compassionate.

These goals, programs and reforms are not impossible. Indeed, with your help, we can realize them all. I ask your cooperation. You shall have mine.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks to the National Governors' Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347622