With the federal government deeply deadlocked, allowing states to play a bigger role could provide an answer to public frustration with the stalemate.
Throughout its history, this country has struck a balance between the states and the federal government, though Washington has gradually gained authority while states have less power than they had 200 years ago.
That trend has been necessary to promote the growth of a strong national economy and to assure individual rights throughout the country. But when Washington is divided by deep political differences and unable to act, as we see now, the entire country suffers.
States have retained some real powers. They mostly control education and compete with one another to attract industry and investment, often through the use of their tax and environmental laws.
It’s tempting to think more could be accomplished if states had more freedom to act. That does not mean constitutional rights could be cut in some states or that interstate trade barriers could be built, but states seeking to innovate would not be limited by the need to wait for congressional action.
Let’s take health care. The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – turned out to be a complicated and controversial program, because Congress could not find a bipartisan compromise between a system run entirely by insurance companies and one run entirely by the government.
The result is a hybrid far less efficient and cost saving than had been the goal. Could the states have done something different?
What if some states wanted to try the single payer system, while others wanted to stick with the traditional insurance model? The federal government could have simply required states to have insurance systems covering virtually everybody or risk losing Medicaid funding.
A national system is not necessary to have a successful health insurance program. The Canadian single payer system was launched in a one province, Saskatchewan, which had even fewer people than Maine does now. When it worked there, it was extended to other Canadian provinces.
States have been called “laboratories of democracy.” The Supreme Court justice who came up with that phrase in 1932, explained, “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
States could work together in regional groups. The Constitution allows for interstate “compacts,” essentially treaties among the states. Perhaps Congress could promote such accords in some policy areas. In any case, it must approve them.
Some states might choose to impose tougher environmental standards than a national minimum. Or they could develop regional energy policies in light of the failure of the federal government to come up with one.
Instead of continuous pressure for federal tax cuts, there might be greater support for government funding if tax dollars, supporting designated programs, came back to the states where the voters could exercise more control.
To many people, the federal government seems distant and apparently under the control of big money rather than of voters. By relying more on state governments, people would stand a chance of regaining a sense of connection with their government.
If state policies diverged, it is possible states would attract like-minded people because of their approach, a trend analysts say is already happening.
The United States would not be alone in moving to shift some political power away from the central government.
After recent elections to the European Parliament, the European Union now finds itself forced to consider if it has gone too far in asserting control over its member countries.
In Great Britain, both Scotland and Wales have increased their autonomy and this fall, Scotland will vote on becoming a separate country, which would break a union with England dating from 1707.
All across Eastern Europe, countries have split into smaller states. The Soviet Union, formerly composed of 15 “republics,” yielded 15 separate countries. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia splintered.
Smaller countries allow people with similar backgrounds or interests to have their own government, reducing sources of internal friction that can lead to potentially dangerous conflict.
Of course, this is not a worldwide development. China, the largest country, shows no sign of breaking up.
And the federal government must retain its role in matters from civil rights to national defense, from protecting health to the space program. It could also set national standards, leaving it up to states to devise their own ways of meeting them.
Given the federal failure to find compromises, leaving more matters to states or regions could help get American government working again.