“Devolution” is a widely used term that lacks a precise definition and is often used interchangeably with “decentralization.” Decentralization, however, entails explicit transfers of decision-making authority that are limited to specific programs or functions. Such transfers from a central or higher-level entity to subordinate field, regional, and/or local entities do not ordinarily give the subordinate entities rights of autonomous self-government. Decentralization also implies that the central or higher-level entity can unilaterally recentralize authority.
Devolution, which can be instituted constitutionally or legislatively, implies a transfer of substantial, or even complete, power and authority for a range of important governmental functions from a national or central government to subordinate regional governments (e.g., provinces or states) or local governments (e.g., municipalities or metropolitan entities) such that the regional or local governments are invested with substantial rights of autonomous self-government. A key power in devolution crucial for self-government is the authority of a regional or local government to (1) adopt and collect its own sources of revenue (e.g., levy sales, income, or property taxes), (2) set its own tax rules and rates, (3) borrow funds, and (4) expend its revenues for locally determined purposes.
A leading example of devolution was the delegation in 1998 and 1999 of substantial powers and authority in the United Kingdom to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The reopening under devolution of Scotland’s parliament after a more than 300-year hiatus symbolized the restoration of significant autonomous self-government for Scotland. There have also been substantial devolutions of power from Spain’s central government to such regions as the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia. These examples indicate that devolution can be asymmetrical; that is, some regions or localities are granted, or entitled to receive, more powers than other regions. These examples indicate, as well, that devolution is sometimes a response to demands for autonomy by territorially based ethnic, national, religious, linguistic, and/or religious groups.
Usually, devolution, like decentralization, implies that the national or central government can unilaterally revoke acts of devolution and, thus, take back devolved powers. This happened in the United Kingdom in 1972 when Britain abolished Northern Ireland’s parliament. In some cases, however, there are constitutional guarantees of devolution that protect against revocation; in other cases, the political imperatives of devolution might be sufficient to prevent revocation.
In the United States, the term “devolution” gained some currency when, in 1953, the American Municipal Association proposed a devolution-of-powers approach to municipal home rule. Under this approach, adopted by about 12 states, a state government devolves all powers capable of delegation to local governments for purposes of autonomous self-government. A local government is thereby free to exercise any appropriate power that is not expressly limited or prohibited by the state’s constitution, the local government’s charter, or a general state statute. For example, the Missouri and Pennsylvania Constitutions state that “a municipality which has a home-rule charter may exercise any power or perform any function not denied by this Constitution, by its home-rule charter, or by the General Assembly at any time.” Under this approach, the state legislature is the principal determinant of the degree of autonomous local self-government because the legislature retains complete statutory authority to adjust the boundary between state and local powers.
The term “devolution” gained wider currency during the 1980’s and 1990’s when various observers used the term to describe developments that seemed to suggest a revolution in state-federal relations entailing substantial devolutions of power from the U.S. federal government to the states. President Richard M. Nixon’s New Federalism was termed devolutionary because General Revenue Sharing (GRS) and the block grants advocated by Nixon provided greater discretion and flexibility for state and local governments than traditional categorical and project grants. Nixon also decentralized various grant-in-aid and regulatory functions to federal regional offices. However, GRS, enacted in 1972, was terminated for states in 1980 and for local governments in 1986. In addition, GRS and block grants together never accounted for more than 18 percent of all federal aid to state and local governments. Some observers also described President Ronald Reagan’s New Federalism as devolutionary, but his major New Federalism proposals were not enacted, he abolished the functions of federal regional offices established by Nixon, and he supported the final termination of GRS in 1986. Although Reagan convinced Congress to enact new block grants (i.e., nine new block grants in 1981), block grants again never accounted for more than 18 percent of all federal aid. Meanwhile, Reagan signed more bills preempting state powers than any previous president; he also approved major conditions attached to aid, such as the 21-year-old drinking age condition attached to federal highway aid in 1984. In the mid-1980’s, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations proposed devolving various programs to state and local governments; however, the Commission referred to its proposals as “turnbacks,” namely, restorations to state and local governments of functions for which those governments were once entirely responsible prior to federal intervention. None of the proposed programs were turned back to states and localities.
The 1996 welfare reform law—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)—enacted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was deemed devolutionary by some observers because PRWORA created a new block grant, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and allowed states considerable discretion in implementing PRWORA. However, PRWORA is encumbered with conditions; states must achieve very specific federal objectives; states face fiscal and civil penalties for failures to meet the federal objectives; and TANF’s funding is dwarfed by other categorical grant welfare programs, especially Medicaid, a highly conditioned categorical grant program that accounts for nearly 45 percent of all federal aid to state and local governments. Congress’s failure to reauthorize PRWORA in 2002 and for several years thereafter because of disagreements over policy objectives further indicated that PRWORA is not an example of devolution but merely of federal delegation of administrative discretion to the states to select the means by which they achieve mandated federal objectives.
Strictly speaking, there can be no devolution of powers from the U.S. federal government to the states without constitutional change because the federal government possesses only those powers delegated to it by the people of the states through the U.S. Constitution. All other powers are reserved to the states or to the people (see the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Hence, the states are sovereign in their own right, and they derive their self-governing powers from their own people, not from the U.S. government or the people of the United States. However, each U.S. state government is a unitary government possessing inherent and plenary residual powers, whereas in the case of local governments there is no inherent or sovereign right of self-government. Consequently, it is possible to devolve powers from a state government to local governments.
Timothy Conlan, From New Federalism to Devolution: Twenty-five Years of Intergovernmental Reform (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1988); John Kincaid, “De Facto Devolution and Urban Defunding: The Priority of Persons over Places,” Journal of Urban Affairs 21, no. 2 (Summer): 135–67; U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Devolving Federal Program Responsibilities and Revenue Sources to State and Local Governments, A-104 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986); and U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Devolving Selected Federal-Aid Highway Programs and Revenue Bases: A Critical Appraisal, A-108 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987).