Shortly after Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he proposed a dramatic restructuring of American government. The bloated federal bureaucracies, Nixon believed, buried creative entrepreneurship under mountains of red tape and fostered dependency on handouts. He called instead for a "New Federalism" -- a system which directed money and power away from the federal bureaucracy and toward states and municipalities. This system, Nixon said, could respond more efficiently to the needs of the people.
The president's New Federalism was anything but new. In fact, if not in name, Nixon had been a practicing New Federalist since he entered Congress in 1946. Throughout his political career, he had opposed big government programs and fought to restore political authority to the local level. Now he would use the power of the presidency to further the cause of New Federalism.
In 1969, despite civil rights reforms like the landmark decision declaring that segregated schools where unconstitutional, the 1964 Civil Rights bill and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many African Americans lived without the full protection of the law, equal access to public facilities, or equal economic opportunity. Nixon viewed this situation as not only unfair to African Americans, but as a waste of valuable human resources which could help the nation grow.
Among the most pressing civil rights issues was desegregation of public schools. Nixon inherited a nation in which nearly 70% of the black children in the South attended all-black schools. He had supported civil rights both as a senator and as vice president under Eisenhower, but now, mindful of the Southern vote, he petitioned the courts on behalf of school districts seeking to delay busing. Meanwhile, he offered a practical New Federalist alternative -- locally controlled desegregation.
Starting in Mississippi and moving across the South, the Nixon administration set up biracial state committees to plan and implement school desegregation. The appeal to local control succeeded. By the end of 1970, with little of the anticipated violence and little fanfare, the committees had made significant progress -- only about 18% of black children in the South attended all-black schools.
New Federalism's focus on local empowerment did not mean an abdication of federal responsibility. In fact, the de-emphasis of federal bureaucracy coincided with a concentration of power within the White House. The president's actions on behalf of women illustrated his willingness to use that concentrated power.
Nixon had campaigned as a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, but did little to push its passage following his election. When feminists pointed out his lack of support for women's issues, he used presidential power to push the federal government forward.
Despite the opposition of many men in his administration, Nixon increased the number of female appointments to administration positions. He created a Presidential Task Force on Women's Rights. He asked the Justice Department to bring sex discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And he ordered the Labor Department to add sex discrimination provisions to the guidelines for its Office of Federal Contract Compliance.
Nixon's responsiveness to various constituencies may have been as much a reflection of his political savvy as a commitment to New Federalism. Prior to the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970, the president showed little interest in environmental issues. But in the millions who gathered in communities around the nation, he saw political power.
The president sent dozens of environmental proposals to Congress, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, perhaps one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation ever passed. He also created two new agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency, to oversee environmental matters.
While Nixon increased spending on domestic initiatives during his presidency, he consistently stood by the New Federalist principle of fiscal efficiency. Nixon insisted that all environmental proposals meet the cost-benefit standards of the Office of Management and Budget. In 1972, he vetoed the Clean Water Act, which he generally supported, because Congress had boosted its cost to $18 billion. When Congress overrode his veto, he used his presidential powers to impound half of the money.
In many ways, Nixon's New Federalism paralleled Conservatives' desires for a smaller, less costly federal government. But an element of true radicalism was evident in two of his most controversial domestic proposals -- revenue sharing and the Family Assistance Plan.
Nixon viewed the federal bureaucracy as a poor revenue manager. But instead of simply cutting taxes, as later Conservatives would, he proposed a new system called revenue sharing, which redirected funds to the state and municipal levels. The federal government would collect taxes and the local governments would spend the money.
Although revenue sharing was anathema to the federal bureaucrats, whose jobs it threatened, and to the Congressmen who made political hay by dispensing federal dollars within their districts, it offered great appeal at the local level. Without the cumbersome red tape that weighed down big federal programs, states and localities received guaranteed revenue which they could distribute as they pleased.
Passed after contentious debate, the State and Local Assistance Act of 1972 initially delivered $4 billion per year in matching funds to states and municipalities. The program, which distributed some $83 billion dollars before it was killed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, proved enormously popular. But if revenue sharing increased Nixon's popularity, another proposal, closer to his heart, had the opposite effect.
Nixon had experienced the sting of poverty as a child, and he never forgot it. But while he sympathized with the poor, he also shared many Americans' conviction that the welfare system had grown into an inefficient bureaucracy which fostered dependency and low self esteem among welfare recipients and contributed to the breakdown of families by providing assistance only to households which were not headed by a working male.
With the assistance of Urban Affairs Council secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon created the Family Assistance Plan. FAP called for the replacement of bureaucratically administered programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps, and Medicaid, with direct cash payments to those in need. Not only single-parent families, but the working poor would qualify for aid. All recipients, save the mothers of preschool age children, would be required to work or take job training.
Nixon revealed FAP in a nationwide address on August 8, 1969. Heavy criticism followed. Welfare advocates declared the income level Nixon proposed -- $1600 per year for a family of four -- insufficient. Conservatives disliked the idea of a guaranteed annual income for people who didn't work. Labor saw the proposal as a threat to the minimum wage. Caseworkers opposed FAP fearing that many of their jobs would be eliminated. And many Americans complained that the addition of the working poor would expand welfare caseloads by millions. A disappointed Nixon pressed for the bill's passage in various forms, until the election season of 1972. He knew a bad campaign issue when he saw one, and he let FAP expire.
Nixon won reelection by a landslide in 1972. During his first term, Nixon succeeded in redirecting power away from the federal government. Some argue that his efforts benefited women and minorities, resulted in a cleaner environment and provided money and power for local initiatives. New Federalism, however, withered on the vine as Nixon fought in vain to preserve his presidency during the Watergate scandal.
A president who rose from a broken childhood to become one of the most successful politicians in modern American history, and one of the most complex and conflicted characters to ever stride across the public stage.
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