The Cartel Breaks

Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski have a fine article (National Journal, Apr. 13) on the increased partisan-ideological divisions among states. There’s way more ideological and partisan homogeneity within states, and

Across the full range of economic and cultural issues, Democratic and Republican state officials are pulling apart far more than they did as recently as two decades ago. On gun control, gay marriage, immigration, taxes, and participation in President Obama’s health reform law, among other issues, states that lean red and those that lean blue are diverging to an extent that is straining the boundaries of federalism.

The article is vintage National Journal, both in a good sense (well-informed, thorough, judicious) but also in a not-so-good sense. As the title suggests (“How Washington Ruined Governors”), it’s too taken with mainstream, bipartisan, consensual, good-government-from-good-governors to recognize the downside of that mode of federalism—or the upside of the more contentious brand that seems to be on the ascent. E.g., the authors lament that the

widening gap is recasting the role of governors. Well into the 1990s, state executives considered themselves more pragmatic than members of Congress; they regularly shared ideas across party lines and often sought to emerge nationally by bridging ideological disputes. 

Over roughly the final third of the 20th century, … this movement accelerated. State lawmakers converged around a burst of policy innovation that led some to describe the period as a second Progressive Era. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many of the most prominent governors in both parties prided themselves on recombining ideas from left and right on issues such as education, health care, transportation, and welfare.

Yep: that’s the pure form of what I’ve called “cartel federalism” (versus “competitive federalism”), and one of its principal maintenance organizations was indeed the National Governors’ Association. The NGA’s “pragmatic” agenda consisted of three demands on Congress:

  1. Some of us have this here policy experiment. It kind of worked in Nowheresville, and all of us would like to have it. Would you care to buy it?
  2. On second thought, send us more money and leave us alone.
  3. On third thought, without federal standards, there’ll be a ruinous race to the bottom. Please come govern us.

And precisely which policy achievement of this fabulous era would we care to perpetuate—Medicaid Education? Urban development grants? And no, not welfare, either. Alas, it’s not a real question: this stuff perpetuates itself.

Even so, the cartel is crumbling. On a ton of social and economic issues, from gay marriage to health care to fracking, blue and red states are rolling out very different political models, under intensely competitive conditions. Our authors acknowledge that “competition has inspired ambitious activity in both red and blue states”; yet they fret:

[M]any analysts question whether these initiatives really embody the ‘laboratory of democracy’ ideal of state tinkering or rather reflect a centrally directed model in which states, often at the prodding of national interest groups, serially fall in line behind their party’s national agenda. [Former Arizona Governor Bruce] Babbitt expresses a widespread concern that states have diminished their capacity to genuinely innovate because their every choice is framed through the national partisan struggle. ‘The divergences in the laboratory-of-democracy idea ought to grow out of grassroots experience’ in the states, he says. ‘It’s not the case now. It’s a top-down divergence being driven by national ideological arguments. It’s not an experimental model, and it’s not a very productive exercise.’ Rather than ideas rising from the states to Washington, he says, governors are being ‘conscripted and corrupted into the national political debate.’

Speaking of conscription: would this be the same Bruce “Grassroots” Babbitt under whose leadership the U.S. Department of Interior engineered a gargantuan expansion of the Endangered Species Act, with the result that tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, loggers, and other landowners found their property “conscripted for national zoological use” (as Justice Scalia memorably put it in a terrific dissent, see Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter (1995))? Yup, that’s him.

Putting his laboratory bona fides aside, the distinction between pragmatic, bottom-up experimentation and top-down, ideological crusading strikes me as silly. To some, Obamacare is an ideological monstrosity; to others, the embodiment of “best practices” experimentation. To some, “limited government” is an ideological slogan; to others, it’s a prerequisite for good government (as well as a constitutional command). One way to figure out which is which is to see what works; and as near as I can tell, the current crop of governors are perfectly happy—happier, certainly, than some of their let’s-all-agree-to-ask-for-more-money predecessors—to be judges by that standard, by the folks who are in command of that judgment: the voters.

Three cheers for competition.