Federalism

The Continental Congress formed a national government to raise funds for wars, manage trade, oversee a national economy, particularly the power to print money, and to referee disputes between States. The rest was left to the States to manage on their own. The Bill of Rights was added to include citizens, not just states.

Over the centuries this Federal-State relationship has become frayed. There are legitimate reasons for the Federal Government to step in and pass national laws that protect some aspect of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Today, this “stepping in” has in many ways become a money game for lobbyists and special interests; the inherent values of a State are subject to abuse by investors and entrepreneurs. Genuinely needed support to the States is often ignored, for example, roads, transportation and utility infrastructure.

The recent effort to pass gun registration gave the mariner the thought that perhaps the individual States may be able to promote change more rapidly than the Federal Government. What changes can be made will depend on the cultural attitude of the State’s constituency, where an issue can become a common objective. Taking an intellectually simple issue, legalizing marijuana, each State has approached the issue in a way that is more responsive to the attitude of its constituency rather than following the Federal position. Change is occurring at the State level years before it would pass the Congress and the Attorney General knows better than to go after popular State legislation. Another example is legalization of same sex marriage; individually, a number of States are forcing change by making same sex marriage legal at the State level – even though it is an issue better dealt with at the Federal level (due process, equal protection, etc.).

To a significant degree, State Government is more sensitive to the mood and need of its constituency; State legislators are folks that go home every night to their neighborhoods; political capital is earned by championing very local issues. States, more or less, are modifying education policy because they are forced both by economics and at the same time have to provide an educated work force – something potential businesses ask about frequently. There are dozens of different educational experiments ongoing in States while the Congress has no interest in increasing funding to State education budgets generally and certainly has no interest in educational philosophies.

Perhaps it is easier for a citizen to modify a State legislator’s priorities than those of a Congressman. Perhaps too much attention is paid to Federal progress (or lack thereof) and not enough to State governments that are forced to adjust to the reality of their constituency more so than the Congress.

It is easier to marshal an activist citizenry at the State level than at the Federal level where immense amounts of dollars is a deterrent. What would happen if the constituencies cared more about selectively electing the local mayors, legislators, judges and Governors than they cared about the big, TV covered Federal elections? Could change occur more rapidly? After all, isn’t that what the Constitutional Congress intended?

The thorn in this approach is the diversity of each State constituency. States can collaborate in ways that some types of progress can be made but not other types. Consider the Dixie States: socially conservative, comparatively racist, and have clearly ranked classes of individuals. Consider the rust belt: languishing in the last echoes of the industrial revolution, most of which was sent overseas. A genuine American culture that made this country strong and profitable has all but disappeared. Consider the mountain states: sparse population, firmly independent, and at odds with any agency or Non Profit Organization that infringes on their right to do what they want to do. Consider New England and the Mid-Atlantic States: The site of the founding of the United States, this region has carved a culture of pragmatism rather than ideology – something that must have been necessary to survive the early years.

Each region has different priorities – both cultural and economic.

What changes can/will each region advocate? Will the changes correlate to changes promoted by other regions of the United States? If nothing else, the Congress will have to listen to change from their constituent regions if they want to be reelected. This is a State strategy to divide and conquer the attention of the Federal government. The mariner suspects it will take groups of States to make this work but it may be the fastest way to implement changes to dysfunctional congressional practices.

The Senators who voted down the gun registration bill are feeling the heat at home. With a little practice, State citizens may wield notable influence – maybe even beat the generation cycle. From their perspective, the Tea Party, a loose coalition of grass roots organizations, made significant progress.

State referendum or initiative is a way to make change. It is quick but it is completely populist. Proposition 13 in California, passed in 1978, changed the California Constitution to limit property tax increases to virtually zero; it still shackles the economy of California to the point that what was once the fifth largest economy in the world is deeply in debt because of the tax constraints in Proposition 13. To reader Marc’s point in an earlier post, the individual voter doesn’t do much homework.

Marches on Washington, for example the “Million Man” march by African Americans in 1995 to protest economic oppression of African American men, get large press, allow Congressmen to promote their positions during the event, and then the issue drops from sight. The Million Man March was backed by a number of national African American organizations and notable speakers from every quarter. Grass roots training, education and proselytizing were provided in advance.

The effect of the Million Man March was not one of legislative change or greater opportunity through government or business. Its benefit, unexpectedly, was to raise the consciousness of African American men. Sociological studies since show that family ties were strengthened, a sense of belonging to something of value emerged, even a few successful business ventures can be traced back to the march. The main effect of the march was the establishment of self worth and common cause. Still, no meaningful legislation has come to pass. Nevertheless, can this be called change? What is the next step for the African American? Should other races/classes first bond together in order to have the zeal to make change happen?

All said, the answer is grass root energy and will. Popular attitude alone almost achieved gun registration. It will take organized activism as well as attitude to make change real – especially in election campaigns.

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