Saturday, February 11, 2017

One-Party Rule at the State Level: Federalism at Work

With Congressional Republicans appearing “flummoxed by the complexities of one-party rule, struggling with issues from repealing the Affordable Care Act . . . to paying for President Trump’s promised wall on the Mexican border, rising party leaders in the states seem far more at ease and assertive. Republicans have top-to-bottom control in 25 states now, holding both the governorship and the entire legislature, and Republican lawmakers are acting with lightning speed to enact longstanding conservative priorities.”[1] Not yet even a month after Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, 2017, Republicans in Kentucky had “swiftly passed laws to roll back the powers of labor unions and restrict access to abortion,” and were planning “sweeping changes to the education and public pension systems.”[2] In states from New England to the Midwest and across the South, Republican lawmakers had “introduced or enacted legislation to erode union powers and abortion rights, loosen gun regulations, expand school-choice programs and slash taxes and spending.”[3] That the media spotlight at the time was so focused on the federalism says something about just how eclipsed federalism itself had become on the national stage.

It is no accident that one-party rule at the state level was accomplishing more than Republican majorities in Congress and a Republican in the White House. The delegates in the federal constitutional convention in 1787 designed the new federal system with the expectation that most of the domestic lawmaking would occur at the state level. They did not design a streamlined process for federal lawmaking on purpose. Furthermore, the sovereignty retained by the states is the rationale behind the filibuster mechanism in the U.S. Senate—a tool that a minority party can use to thwart or at least slow down the legislative program of the majority party. State legislatures do not have the added complexity of having polities (i.e., states) as members too.

Yet in spite of the added level of obstacles at the federal level, which includes there being many points of access, the media focuses on its stage almost exclusively—essentially working at cross-purposes with the very design of the federal system. Were the attention to match where government action is most likely to succeed in undiluted legislation, the public awareness would be in alignment with federalism rather than consolidation. Put another way, with Americans glued to the dramatic twists and turns in Washington, D.C., expectations can easily outstrip the realistic capability of the complexity at the federal level and work against the very design of the federal system.

[1] Alexander Burns and Mitch Smith, “State G.O.P. Leaders Move Swiftly as Party Bickers in Congress,” The New York Times, February 11, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.