Baltimore Sun

A reordering of federal-state balance

- Carl P. Leubsdorf

It’s been more than a quarter-century since President Bill Clinton memorably proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.”

He was premature. The ensuing 26 years have seen Democratic and Republican presidents expand federal authority: the No Child Left Behind Education Act, the Medicare Prescripti­on Drug Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Securities Regulation Act and several measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact.

But Clinton’s proclamati­on is far more apt today, as a combinatio­n of factors curb the federal government’s ability to address major problems and encourage states to do so.

They’re reordering the federal-state balance dominated by the federal government for the last 90 years. But that is creating new problems, including sharp policy splits between Democratic-dominated states and Republican-controlled ones and increased state domination of localities.

The most obvious reason for this change is the persistent congressio­nal gridlock preventing federal solutions to such controvers­ial issues as voting rights, abortion, gun control and immigratio­n.

Close national elections are one factor, since a Congress in which neither party enjoys a workable majority is a prescripti­on for deadlock. So is today’s increased partisansh­ip — and the relative paucity of centrist lawmakers.

But more significan­t has been the way the Senate’s innate imbalance has been exacerbate­d by the tendency of whichever party is in the minority to invoke the requiremen­t of 60 votes to pass legislatio­n; that makes it easier for the minority to keep the majority from acting.

The Supreme Court has also played an important role. Its failure to curb political gerrymande­ring has increased partisansh­ip in the House of Representa­tives and state legislatur­es. And it has increasing­ly voted to restrict federal actions, including a 2013 decision curbing Justice Department enforcemen­t of the Voting Rights Act, its reversal of its 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, and the decision curbing the Environmen­t Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Its conservati­ve majority is increasing­ly invoking the originalis­t theory that the federal government only has the authority specifical­ly granted in the Constituti­on.

It’s true that many recent cases concern issues that were not addressed when the Constituti­on was written in 1787, like abortion and gay marriage. Whether justified or not, the court seems likely to keep letting states decide policy in such areas and make federal actions harder to sustain.

The reaction to the abortion ruling illustrate­s

the inconsiste­nt fallout. Predominan­tly Republican states in the South and Midwest are moving to ban all abortions; Democratic ones in the Northeast and

West are expanding protection for women seeking them.

On elections, blue states are generally making voting easier as red states make it harder; on gun control, blue states are curbing personal ownership of firearms, and red states are easing it; on immigratio­n, red states are implementi­ng more restrictiv­e policies than Washington; and on education, they are curbing local school districts from allowing student discussion of controvers­ial subjects like racism.

Many conservati­ves have long argued that the Constituti­on’s framers wanted this by reserving all powers not specifical­ly grated to the states.

But starting with Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, presidents of both parties recognized that many problems extend beyond individual states and require national solutions. That led to Roosevelt’s groundbrea­king New Deal federal regulatory measures, President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway

system, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the civil rights laws Congress enacted during Democratic administra­tions with backing from both parties.

In theory, it’s sensible to tackle some problems on the state level and others nationally. But the latter often requires compromise, and the increase in partisansh­ip and disappeara­nce of more centrist lawmakers have made that increasing­ly difficult. Besides, institutio­nal factors on both levels are exaggerati­ng the problem.

On the federal level, the combinatio­n of each state having two United States senators and the more rigid partisansh­ip has allowed states representi­ng a minority of the electorate to often out-vote ones representi­ng the majority. Most smaller states are solidly Republican, most of the bigger ones tend to be Democratic.

On the state level, the failure of the courts to curb partisan gerrymande­ring has enabled parties to convert timely election successes into permanent legislativ­e majorities that don’t always reflect public attitudes.

The poster child is Wisconsin, a closely

divided state Republican­s carried in seven out of nine presidenti­al elections from 1952 to 1984 and Democrats in eight of nine since.

In 2011, the Republican­s benefited from midterm election victories to create 2-to-1 majorities in both legislativ­e houses that have outlasted future elections. The same election helped the GOP produce smaller but equally solid margins in swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvan­ia. Only their election of Democratic governors has limited enactment of policies at odds with their prevailing viewpoints.

But in Florida and Texas, the combinatio­n of Republican governors and solid GOP legislativ­e majorities has enabled them to force their conservati­ve views onto more liberal-minded localities.

One reason to transfer power from the federal to the state level was to bring it closer to the people. But malapporti­oned state legislatur­es and rigidly partisan state policies undercut that goal.

 ?? NATHAN HOWARD/GETTY ?? U.S. Capitol Police watch an abortion-rights rally from behind a security fence at the Supreme Court on June 23.
NATHAN HOWARD/GETTY U.S. Capitol Police watch an abortion-rights rally from behind a security fence at the Supreme Court on June 23.
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