Preempting State Pension Bailouts

Congress has long used its control of the federal government’s purse strings as a club with which to force states to change laws that fall under state governments’ traditional police powers, such as speed limits and legal drinking ages, by threatening to cut federal highway funds. Given the current trend in government growth, I expect the categories of funds so manipulated to expand.

The two most notorious policies so crammed down states’ throats — the 55-mph speed limit and the 21 legal drinking age — constituted nanny-state social engineering of the worst kind: government forcing behavior on certain citizens for their own good.

However, when it is the money of the nation’s taxpayers, rather than behavior politicians don’t like, that is at stake, pulling such funding may be called for. In his Washington Examiner column today, Hugh Hewitt proposes such a solution to prevent a federal bailout of underfunded state public employee pensions.

Federal spending power was used to oblige states to lower their speed limits to 55 miles per hour a few years back. The same authority could be employed to oblige states to curtail public employee pensions. A new federal statute, stating simply that the Treasury will not be sending assistance to any state awarding any new six-figure pensions under any circumstances, would be approved by overwhelming margins.

The federal government discouraging state government profligacy is very different from its manipulating federal funds to enact state-level policies over which it should have no authority. For that reason, comparing the two is troubling, even when accomplished by similar means. Still, if the federal government is ever to withdraw funding for any reason, it should be to rein in its own, and other governments’, power.

For more on public sector unions, see here and here.