August 5, 2022
Speaking at a Sutherland Institute Congressional Series event this week, Rep. Chris Stewart said he believes that federalism is the only way for America to overcome its divisions. “Letting the states decide … is the only thing that will create this national relief valve, this pressure relief valve” for people’s political and moral passions that will prevent the division-driven decline of America.
He also noted that federalism is valuable to people of all partisan and ideological commitments. “People say federalism, states’ rights, that’s a conservative argument; that’s what all the red states want to do. Au contraire. There’s lots of examples of blue state federalism.”
What does the evidence show about the value of federalism to liberal and conservative policy initiatives?
The Trump administration in many instances sought to reform environmental regulations that it believed went too far, such as auto emissions standards. In response, some states pushed back in a liberal direction. The state of California, for example, negotiated a “framework agreement on clean emission standards” with four major automakers (Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen) to keep the standards as they were prior to the Trump administration reforms.
Between 2015 and 2020, various cities and states increased their minimum wages. In one city, the minimum wage increased more than 50% (phased in over several years). This “liberal victory” even spread to states dominated by Republicans, like Missouri and Arkansas.
Under the Trump administration, more than 200 cities and counties refused to aid federal immigration officers in enforcing federal immigration laws they disagreed with. This included things like refusing to detain undocumented immigrants in jails and prisons.
In response to several recent Supreme Court rulings that state elected leaders objected to, California enacted a new gun control law. The new law uses adopts a novel approach to legal enforcement – borrowed from a Texas abortion law – in an attempt to decrease the sale and distribution of illegal guns, such as certain assault rifles and guns without serial numbers.
After the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the federal government to force states to expand their state-administered (but partially federally funded) Medicaid programs, many states chose to expand Medicaid. However, a dozen states have not expanded Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act so far.
Currently, eight states have programs that offer families a portion of their state education tax dollars to spend crafting a personalized education path for their student, known as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). These ESA programs complement the policies of 16 states that offer taxpayer-funded vouchers that students can receive to pay for private school tuition.
More than a dozen states have introduced – and several have enacted – laws that require public schools to post classroom instructional materials (e.g., books, articles and videos) online for parents and others to see. The purpose of these policies is to ensure that parents have reasonable access to what their children are being taught in public school classrooms.
Here in Utah, we advanced new religious freedom protections that were packaged with nondiscrimination provisions for sexual orientation and gender identity in 2015. Some of these additional protections were the first of their kind when it comes to state laws protecting religious freedom.
These examples illustrate how the principle and governing structure of federalism serve the interests of conservatives and liberals alike. Red, blue and purple states all use our federalist structure to ensure that their policy ecosystem reflects local values, political commitments and priorities rather than simply those chosen by the party in power in D.C.
In a world becoming suffused with political tribalism – a world in which people are more afraid of losing power to “the other side” than they are of failing to advance their own policy ideas – federalism is a safe harbor against national political power deciding everything of significance. Federalism protects both culture warriors and social justice warriors from the full consequences of failure to win federal elections – and that is how our system is designed to be. Elections have consequences, but those consequences in the federal case were never intended to be all-encompassing.
In the end, federalism is just good sense no matter your ideological commitments or partisan affiliation.
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