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The Federalism Fix

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eye on the news

The Federalism Fix

How to bring peace to Washington’s partisan wars May 5, 2021
Politics and law

Imagine a world in which your favorite policy proposals are no longer blocked by Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, or Ted Cruz. In this world, Washington’s longstanding partisan warfare no longer paralyzes action on health care, welfare, education, and infrastructure.

Impossible? Not at all. The simple solution is federalism. Rather than watch lawmakers in Washington fight for the right to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on America, we can let state governments, which are closer to the people, tailor local solutions to local problems.

We’ve already seen what happens when Washington calls the shots for everyone. Take health care. Thirty years of partisan fights have raised billions in campaign contributions for both sides, flipped control of Congress in 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014, and brought several high-profile Supreme Court cases. Yet in all this time there have been just two transformational health reforms: the creation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003 and the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The ACA then saw a disastrous rollout, followed by a repeal fight that dominated domestic politics for the next decade. Much of the debate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary centered on whether to support Medicare For All—a policy with no chance of passing in Congress anytime soon.

Similar patterns of partisan conflict play out on other issues: welfare, taxes, the minimum wage, transportation, and education. So much fighting for so little progress.

Why does Washington have to decide all these issues for the states? Did Vermont voters elect Bernie Sanders to the Senate to impose his socialist vision on Texas? Did Texas voters send Ted Cruz to Washington to bring conservative policies to Vermont? True, the Framers intended the U.S. Constitution to create a degree of gridlock, but they also wanted to empower state and local governments to provide their own solutions for their populations.

Surveys show that voters trust their governors and mayors to solve problems. A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that 55 percent of respondents preferred power to be concentrated in state governments; 37 percent preferred the federal government. A group of surveys also shows that Americans strongly prefer state and local governments to lead on health insurance (62 percent, versus 38 percent preferring federal leadership), welfare (68/31 percent), unemployment (55/26 percent), education (75/25 percent), pre-kindergarten education (71/25 percent), transportation (78/22 percent), law enforcement (73/20 percent), job training (75/20 percent), housing (83/18 percent), and paving roads (77/9 percent). These preferences reflect the widely shared belief that state and local governments are more competent, fairer, and less wasteful than the federal government.

Decades of geographic partisan sorting also make empowering states more important than ever. Americans have divided themselves into deep red and deep blue states and communities. As far as presidential and Senate elections are concerned, 35 states are essentially one-party states, and 80 percent of counties are considered “landside counties,” with regular partisan splits of more than 20 points. At the same time, both parties are growing more ideologically homogeneous and extreme.

Though America has sorted itself into communities with shared values and political views, Washington has increasingly imposed one-size-fits-all solutions. This has led to political warfare. Lawmakers from California and Alabama battle over which side gets to impose its solution nationwide. Centralization has also encouraged poor policies: there are few good reasons that Brooklyn and Alaska should adopt similar approaches on poverty or education policy. Nor is there any good for reason Hawaii and South Dakota to have similar health-care systems. And why is Washington deciding which local roads to expand?

Many American states have economies, populations, and geographical footprints comparable to those of European countries. If all states were divided into separate countries, California would be the world’s fourth-largest economy, while Texas would be ninth, and New York the eleventh. Virginia’s economy is roughly as big as Poland’s, Louisiana’s matches Finland, Montana’s matches Serbia, and Vermont’s economy—the smallest among the states—is about as big as that of the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia. If those countries are large enough to determine their own policies, why aren’t U.S. states?

Surely not all federal policies should be devolved to the states. Those policies with significant spillover effects to other states—dealing with, for example, pollution, interstate communications, and interstate crime—should remain federal. Washington should also maintain control of obvious national policies such as defense, international relations, homeland security, macroeconomic stabilization, broad financial regulation, health and safety regulation, and federal research. Constitutional and civil rights must be enforced.

But that leaves vitally important functions like highways, roads, K-12 schools, the welfare system, and health care ripe for more state control. Leave it to states to tailor local solutions to local problems. A failed approach will harm one state instead of 50; over time, states will copy those that succeed.

There is room in America for both red and blue. Do we want 30 more years of paralysis as Republicans and Democrats in Washington fight to impose their vision on everyone? America is too large and diverse for such centralization. Let Vermont try single-payer health care, let Texas try free-market solutions—and we can all stop being held hostage by Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz.

Photo: TerryJ/iStock

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