During an address at Oglethorpe University during his successful 1932 campaign, President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared that “the country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation”. Now eighty years hence, it is clear that the country is once again demanding bold, persistent experimentation from government in its quest to solve some of the nation’s most pressing problems. Yet, just as this boldness and persistence is demanded, Congress seems gridlocked at historic levels.
Fortunately for the American public, our federalist system provides a remedy for just such a quandary: the bold, persistent experimentation that can only be provided by individual state governments. Ever since Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis declared state governments “laboratories” for governance, this phenomenon, commonly referred to as “Laboratories of Democracy,” has been studied and debated. But what is beyond debate is that state government provides a strong opportunity for issue advancement in an era of Congressional gridlock.
What does this advocacy for issue advancement look like? In practice, those interested in seeing their policy objectives advanced have multiple avenues by which to pursue such goals at the state level. The first and clearest path is through model legislation that is adopted by various state legislatures. Most state level activity is in the policy realms of education, health care, and corrections, and states also take up a host of revenue and economic development issues, albeit less uniformly. Instead of pushing Congress to adopt a measure, it is often just as effective to get a large percentage of states to take the lead.
Second, states share common causes that often lead to either a positive or negative impact for your members. Hosts of interstate compacts exist between multiple states, ranging from greenhouse gases and emissions to roads and bridges, and more often than not result in the formation of new agencies and government regulatory structures. For examples, the Great Lakes Commission is populated by state governments in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries are regulated by Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. For business, community, and educational leaders, these compacts often have far more influence on their daily operations than do acts of Congress.
Third, the Tenth Amendment still matters. As we saw with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, getting state legislatures and executive officers to say “no” to burdensome federal legislation is still an important function of the states. This power, despite its connotation, is in no way partisan. During the previous administration, many states openly opposed through legislation the No Child Left behind Act and its implementation clauses. Oftentimes, when a legislative cause is lost in the Beltway, it can be won in State Capitols through increased awareness and political pressure.
When Businesses and Trade Organizations are considering their legislative priorities in the coming session of Congress they should keep this in mind: seven states have passed flat tax rates that dramatically reformed their individual tax codes; Texas is considering a plan to grant free college education to its citizens; and Florida is considering groundbreaking reforms to Medicaid that would alter the way we look at entitlements. States are, as Justice Brandeis said, “laboratories of democracy,” and if enough states get on board with what they are promoting perhaps some of that broken gridlock emanating from State Capitols will rub off on the Hill – and to their benefit.
Mike Gibson is the President and CEO of the Advocacy Group, Inc., a pubic affairs consultancy firm with offices in Washington, DC and Ohio.