“It used to be that the US could weather every storm because we had the money,’’ says Richard Nathan, former director of the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and author of several books on federalism. “Now, government has to get smarter and that’s the big challenge. So I think personally that what [Congress] should try to do with legislation should involve the states – they’ve been responsible for doing what gets done in the domestic sector.”
That isn’t to say states are immune from gridlock. Recent fiscal fights in California between legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have left many wondering if that state is governable. And in the continued partisan warfare in New York, the two party caucuses in the state Senate refused last year to even meet in the same space for a month.
But states also have shown a greater willingness to put aside differences and tackle topics that in the past would have been seen as the province of the federal government. One example is immigration: In 2009, 10 states enacted tougher penalties for human smuggling and involuntary servitude, and provided aid to victims of those immigration-related crimes.
“Unfortunately, the states have led where Congress has fallen down on the job,” says Tom Hucker, a Democratic member of Maryland’s House of Delegates who worked to pass the nation’s first statewide living-wage law in 2007. “Many of us had hoped this would be a much more activist Congress, but we know how long it takes to get things done, and when they do get done, it’s often watered down. So that means there’s more opportunity for us.”