States are moving in the opposite direction of Washington

06/11/2013 5:49 PM

06/11/2013 5:49 PM

Conservative Republicans in our nation’s capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when tea partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011. They’ve basically shut down Congress.

Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No minimum wage increase. Little so far on immigration reform.

It’s as if an entire branch of the federal government — the branch that’s supposed to deal directly with the nation’s problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law — has gone out of business.

But the nation’s work doesn’t stop even if Washington does. By default, more and more of it is shifting to the states, which are far less gridlocked than Washington. Last November’s elections resulted in one-party control of both the legislatures and governor’s offices in all but 13 states — the most single-party dominance in decades.

This means many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. It’s as if we’re seceding from each other without going through all the trouble of a civil war.

Gay marriages are now recognized in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington state permit the sale of marijuana.

But other states are heading in the opposite direction. They’re enacting laws restricting access to abortions so tightly as to arguably violate the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In Alabama, the mandated waiting period for an abortion is longer than it is for buying a gun. Meanwhile, some states are expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act while others are refusing to.

Federalism is as old as the Republic, but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on such central issues affecting Americans.

Some might say this is a good thing. It allows more of us to live under governments and laws we approve of. And it encourages experimentation: Better to learn that a policy doesn’t work at the state level than after it’s harmed the entire nation. But the trend raises three troubling issues.

First, it leads to a race to the bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy can become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of “one nation” means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.

Second, it doesn’t take account of spillovers. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one state is likely to move to another state where job opportunities are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.

Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century, “states rights” has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists.

A great nation requires a great, or at least functional, national government. The tea partiers and other government-haters who have caused Washington to all but close because they refuse to compromise are threatening all that we aspire to be together.

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