Panel Recap: Localism and Democracy

At the inception of the American Constitution Society, just eight years ago, this panel might well have been viewed as an anomaly. Federalism was the watchword of conservatives struggling to constrain the power of the national government. How times have changed. As Ernie Young noted in his pre-conference blog post, "During the Bush years, progressives trained since the 1960's to disparage state autonomy as indelibly tainted by racism rediscovered the importance of state policy diversity. They defended California's right to go its own way on environmental policy and Massachusetts' prerogatives to allow gay marriage at home and protest human rights violations abroad." The result has been a flourishing progressive federalism movement—or more accurately, as several panelists noted, a federalism without political valence. The four panelists last Saturday spoke to divergent features of today's federalism. What united their presentations was a sense of the dynamism and possibility of the new federalist movement.

Video courtesy of Yale Law School.


First to present were Ilya Somin and Ernie Young, who brought opposite perspectives to the question of how diminishing loyalties to particular states have altered the course of federalism. Somin argued that lower barriers to inter-state mobility promote federalism by facilitating "voting with your feet," even as the rise of federal funding reduces states' incentives to attract tax revenues. Young argued, to the contrary, that a resurgence of state loyalties is needed to foster rich cultures of federalist innovation within the states.

 Richard Schragger and Ethan Leib, next to speak, turned to the details of implementing progressive federalism. Schragger made an impassioned pitch for "federalism all the way down" in the tradition of Justice Brandeis, looking to cities rather than states as the real cradles of policy innovation. He argued for a related kind of localism as well, suggesting that "progressives should reassert the relationship between political and economic decentralization." Leib, citing his own experience with a team that seeks to revise the California Constitution, discussed how progressives might focus on state constitutional conventions as immediate opportunities to facilitate progressive change.

Heather Gerken, in her commentary on the panel, sought to connect its themes with those of the Individual Rights panel that preceded it. She argued that the traditional division between rights and structure as constitutional paradigms has limited progressives in their efforts to promote minority rights. Drawing examples from the struggle for racial justice and from her own work on dissenting by deciding, she argued that progressives should embrace federalism as a new structural language for the values of participation and representation.

Along with the panelists and questioners, moderator Judith Resnik suggested several avenues for further thought. First, what is the relevance of trans-local organizations of government actors (what Resnik, along with Josh Civin and Joe Frueh, have called "TOGAs") in progressive federalism? Second, how limiting are the challenges of immobility in American society? Third, what should progressives do about the currently dysfunctional governance of major states?

I'll close by suggesting a few others. One important question is the extent to which federalism will remain without political valence. Are we likely to see a kind of bifurcated federalism, with liberals and conservatives favoring different versions? Another question: Will governance at the local level reproduce the power dynamics of governance at the national level, or—as Gerken suggests—does it afford unique representational opportunities? Finally, given the present Democratic control of Congress and the presidency, will liberals need to endure a future period in the political wilderness in order to heed Justice Brandeis's call—channeled by Schragger—to "end this business of centralization" and "go home, back to the states" to "do their work"?

The Promise and Peril of Federalism in the 21st Century

Crosspost from Balkinization

American federalism faces both great promise and serious dangers over the next few years. One of the most important advantages of federalism is the ability to “vote with your feet” – to leave a state with oppressive or ineffective policies and move to a better one. Modern technology has greatly reduced the moving costs that previously made interstate migration difficult.  Information about different jurisdictions is easier to get than ever before. Increasing mobility and declining information costs give state and local governments stronger incentives to adopt policies that will be attractive to migrants. Revenue-hungry state governments know that valuable taxpayers will depart if they raise taxes too high or provide poor public services.

Some claim that federalism has lost its value because most Americans no longer feel any strong attachment to state governments. Yet this change may actually make federalism more effective. People who do not feel an attachment to their states are more willing to vote with their feet. This strengthens the incentive of state and local governments to adopt policies appealing enough to keep migrants from leaving. In an increasingly complex and  diverse society, federalism is also potentially more valuable than ever in its traditional role of providing divergent policies for people with differing preferences.

Unfortunately, American federalism is imperiled by the ongoing growth of federal power, especially the increasing dependence of state governments on federal funds. Our system has been successful in part because state governments have historically been forced to raise most of their revenue themselves. State governments that raise their own funds have strong incentives to adopt policies that promote economic growth and attract potential migrants. A state that falls behind its rivals is likely to lose its tax base. But states that can rely on federal funding to meet their fiscal needs face much less competitive pressure and are therefore less likely to adopt good policies. Moreover, federal grants to state governments enable Washington to reduce policy diversity between states, since Congress routinely attaches conditions to its grants that mandate uniformity.

The explosion of federal spending since the financial crisis of 2008 has made states more dependent on federal funding than ever before. In 2009, federal grants-in-aid constitute some 25% of total state revenue, up from less than 20% in 2007. For the first time, federal grant money has become the single largest source of state revenue. The Obama Administration expects federal funding for states to remain at this abnormally high level for years to come. Even when the recession ends, it will be politically difficult to cut federal grants back to previous levels. If Congress passes a major health care bill, federal grants to states will increase still further.

Federalism has also been weakened by the expansion of Congressional regulatory authority. The federal government has come to regulate almost every aspect of American society. This trend accelerated under the Bush Administration, which pushed through legislation expanding federal control of education and health care, and supported federal preemption of a variety of state laws, including ones permitting assisted suicide and the use of medical marijuana. The more policy areas come under federal control, the less the scope for interjurisdictional competition at the state and local level.

Unfortunately, state governments are often complicit in the overexpansion of federal power. States routinely lobby for increased federal funding. For their part, most voters have little understanding of federalism issues. As a result of such public ignorance, overextension of federal authority is rarely punished at the polls.

There is no easy way to limit or roll back the growth of federal power. Increasing public understanding of the problem is a necessary but difficult first step. The courts can also help by enforcing constitutional limits on federal authority. Nonlawyers rightly react with disbelief when they learn that Supreme Court has interpreted Congress’ power to regulate “Commerce . . . among the several States” expansively enough to uphold a ban on the possession of medical marijuana that was never sold in any market or left the state where it was grown. The Court has similarly erred in interpreting Congress’ power to spend for “the General Welfare” so broadly as to legitimize expenditures for local porkbarrel projects such as the “Bridge to Nowhere” that blatantly benefit parochial local interest groups at the expense of nation as a whole. Courts obviously cannot rein in federal power all by themselves. But they can provide a useful corrective.

The 21st century could be an extraordinarily successful time for American federalism -  but only if we restrain the growth of federal power.


Ilya Somin is Associate Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. He will be appearing on Saturday's "Localism and Democracy" panel with Rich Schragger (University of Virginia School of Law, "Federalism All-the-Way-Down"), Ernest Young (Duke University School of Law, "Preserving Democracy's Laboratories"), and Ethan Leib (University of California Hastings College of the Law, "Constitutional Conventions: Getting 20/20 Vision About Them by 2020").

Preserving Democracy’s Laboratories

Crosspost from Balkinization

As Judith Resnik’s contribution to the “Constitution in 2020” volume makes clear, American federalism has neither a progressive nor a conservative political valence. In Wisconsin’s beautiful statehouse in Madison, one can almost sense the ghost of Robert LaFollette and other early Progressives, who initiated reforms in the states before taking them national. Nor should we forget Henry Adams’s observation that, prior to the Civil War, “there was no necessary connection” between “the slave power and states’ rights. . . . Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself.” During the Bush years, progressives trained since the 1960’s to disparage state autonomy as indelibly tainted by racism rediscovered the importance of state policy diversity. They defended California’s right to go its own way on environmental policy and Massachusetts’ prerogatives to allow gay marriage at home and protest human rights violations abroad.  After 2008, progressives will be tempted to shift back to reliance on national power.  But what has once turned can turn again, and 2016 might well bring back the “bad old days” in Washington, D.C.

If both conservatives and progressives ought to value state autonomy, how can we preserve it in an age of runaway integration? Many have focused on either reviving constitutional protections for state autonomy—e.g., by interpreting the Commerce Clause in a more limited fashion—or construing federal statutes to minimize preemption of state law. Both are worthwhile endeavors. But the ultimate safeguards of federalism are political. Judicial protections are unlikely to avail much if the States lose the wellsprings of popular support that give weight to their representation in the national political process.

These days, those wellsprings often seem at risk of drying up. It is difficult to imagine many modern Americans choosing, as Robert E. Lee did in 1860, allegiance to their state over allegiance to their country. Today’s citizens are considerably more likely than their Nineteenth Century counterparts to live in multiple states over the course of their lives, and our media and political culture focus relentlessly on national politics. Local communities, moreover, seem generic and unlikely to inspire strong personal attachments. When David Souter left the Supreme Court to return to his beloved New Hampshire, he was considered highly eccentric for his steadfast sense of belonging to a particular place. And why not, when there is a Starbuck’s on ever corner regardless of whether one is in Greenville, South Carolina or Concord, New Hampshire?

States function as effective laboratories when innovative individuals are sufficiently committed to state political communities to press their ideas at that level. And the resulting innovations will be best defended against national pressures for uniformity when voters and politicians feel they have a stake in the state’s autonomy. A decline in state identity and distinctiveness thus threatens states’ ability to be laboratories and havens for minority viewpoints. The question is whether anything can be done to restore a sense of identity and public commitment in the states.

We may learn something here from an inverse debate in contemporary Europe. National identities in Europe have frequently been a function of ethnic and religious ties. As the European Union develops institutions of governance at the supranational level, however, Europeans have wondered whether democratic accountability at that level requires a pan-European politics based on a shared pan-European identity. Traditional national identities based on shared ethnic and religious ties, however, cannot be replicated at the European level. A prominent proposal to solve this problem involves “constitutional patriotism”—that is, a common identity based on shared liberal ideals of human rights and equal dignity. European identity would be based not on an ethnic volk but on a shared set of political commitments.

This shift in the nature of political identity resonates in America, where national identity has long rested on a form of constitutional patriotism. A similar solution may revive political identities at the state level that have waned as states become both more ethnically heterogeneous internally and more similar to one another in their ethnic and  religious makeup. Massachusetts might build a distinctive political identity based on tolerance of alternative lifestyles and a more generous set of social rights, and California might distinguish itself by its commitment to the environment. 

Not all state-based brands of constitutional patriotism would be progressive. Texas might gravitate toward rugged individualism and a commitment toward traditional notions of punitive justice.  But states need not be uniformly—or even predominantly—progressive in order to fulfill their functions as laboratories of progressive change. The critical thing is that individual states have the freedom to make their own policy choices and the ability to mobilize the loyalties of their citizens around those choices. If the progressive constitutional visions articulated in the 2020 volume are to be realized, many of those reforms will have to start in the states.
Ernest A. Young is Alston & Bird Professor of Law at Duke Law School. He will be appearing on Saturday's "Localism and Democracy" panel with Rich Schragger (University of Virginia School of Law, "Federalism All-the-Way-Down"), Ilya Somin (George Mason University School of Law, "The Peril and Promise of Federalism in the 21st Century"), and Ethan Leib (University of California Hastings College of the Law, "Constitutional Conventions: Getting 20/20 Vision About Them by 2020").


Point-Counterpoint: Progressive Approaches to Achieving Marriage Equality?

Over the next few days, Daniel Winik and Jeremy Kessler will use this space to delve into one of the most pressing debates within contemporary constitutionalism: whether progressive advocates for marriage equality should focus their energies on legislatures or the courts. Consider it a lawyerly debate, with each writer arguing wholeheartedly for the merits of his client — Dan for an “incremental,” legislatively-focused strategy, Jeremy for a court-centered approach — rather than either trying to give a completely “rounded” view on his own. Like many questions, the answer probably rests somewhere in the balance.

Point: Daniel Winik

I’ll open with an argument for incrementalism, an argument shaped in large part by several pieces from The Constitution in 2020, especially Judith Resnik’s discussion of progressive federalism (Chapter 24, PDF) and Robin West’s analysis of “legisprudence” (Chapter 8, PDF). As the essays by Resnik and West suggest, any effective progressive agenda will have to move beyond single-minded reliance on the federal courts as guarantors of rights. This is particularly true, as I see it, for marriage equality: progressives should continue to favor a state-by-state approach to achieving marriage equality, and where possible, they should make their case in the legislatures rather than the courts. Both of these elements — federalism and legislation — are central to an incremental approach. (For similar thinking, see Aaron Zelinsky’s insightful posts here and here.)

Without a doubt, incrementalism makes concessions to the federal bench’s conservative tilt and to the ongoing debate — even among progressives — as to whether the Federal Constitution encompasses marriage equality. That said, my argument is not mainly a tactical one. Even if the Supreme Court were to uphold an Equal Protection challenge, that outcome might not be best for progressives in the long run. Let me suggest three reasons why.

First, constitutional progress is most effective and most lasting when it arises from popular consensus. Jack Balkin and Sandy Levinson have argued that the Supreme Court’s constitutional innovations tend to track the mainstream of political thought, insofar as constitutional change occurs through “partisan entrenchment.” On the rare occasions when the Court has deviated from mainstream trends — Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), being the prime example — its pronouncements have been slower to gain acceptance. Justice Ginsburg, among the pioneers of litigation for women’s rights, has herself suggested that the Roe Court “bit off more than it could chew,” upsetting a legislative “state of flux.” Had Roe come five or ten years later, after legislative progress had been made, the controversy surrounding it would likely not have endured for decades.

If present trends hold, advocates of marriage equality won’t have to wait long for their popular consensus. Statistical guru Nate Silver’s models suggest that “by 2012, almost half of the 50 states [will have] voted against a marriage ban,” and “[b]y 2016, only a handful of states in the Deep South would vote to ban gay marriage.” The recent wave of legislative progress toward marriage equality hasn’t sparked anything close to the backlash that followed Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941, the 2003 decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. In fact, the most recent adoptions of marriage equality statutes have seemed almost routine.

Hence a second reason to favor a state-by-state approach: it provides models to counter public fear-mongering. In other words, federalism isn’t just useful to progressives as a vehicle for legal experimentation; it’s also a sound vehicle for social experimentation. To the extent that Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont survive their transitions to marriage equality with their social fabric intact (and we’re not seeing any reason to ring the alarm), it will become increasingly difficult for trumped-up fears of moral collapse to deter further progress.

A third reason to favor an incremental approach is that the political process of legislating change, state by state, is itself a catalyst for the evolution of public attitudes toward marriage equality. In West’s model of the legislated constitution, the “conscientious, idealized legislator” looks to the Equal Protection Clause as a dictate “to do her moral, political, and constitutional duty by the citizenry.” That process of defining equality, and understanding its mandate, is central to a robust democracy. As Resnik argues, “Jurisdictions do not make rights, but people do . . . . [and] only when many actors, at national and local levels, in and outside formal legal structures, fully embrace propositions like racial and gender equality do such understandings become constitutive . . . .” Incrementalism, then, represents a democratic embrace of the constitutional mandate for equality—not a retreat from it.

A New Use for Federalism? The Benefits and Constitutionality of Randomness in Federal Policymaking

Determining whether progressives should pursue change through the legislatures or the courts depends on our understanding both of what each of these institutions should do and of what these institutions are capable of doing... and they might be more versatile than we've come to assume. As Adam Chandler explains, social science methods point to some interesting uses Congress could make of federalism.


Where laws and regulations differ across state borders, researchers are provided with natural tests of the impacts of those policies. For instance, folks with statistical training can use geographical panel data techniques to discover the effect of a law that is enacted in multiples states at staggered times. Such studies have been done on the deterrent impact of capital punishment and the impact of right-to-carry laws on crime rates to give just two examples. These analyses, however, are necessarily retrospective and constrained by inference techniques. Extensive and careful effort must be used to control for, among other variables, the underlying reasons some states enacted the laws and others did not. More often than not, the resulting answer is that there is not enough evidence to draw a conclusion.

Consider, in contrast, a federal law designed to apply only to randomly selected states (or congressional districts, etc.). Controlled randomized experiments are often described as a “gold standard” in social science research. Adapted from clinical trials, they attempt to isolate the effects of some intervention — say, a new sex ed program — from the environment’s chaotic soup of natural influences and trends. That’s done by comparing a randomly constituted “experimental” group’s experience under the intervention to the natural, everyday changes that a second randomly constituted group experiences when left alone (this second group is the “control” group). These comparisons can help us measure the causal link between a policy and an outcome. And where do the groups come from? I suggest we randomly assign geographical regions, like states, into one or the other.

Perhaps the law could grant twenty random states the funding for a new sexual education curriculum. Then some years later, we could determine the new curriculum’s impact on teen pregnancy rates by comparing the twenty “experimental” states’ teen pregnancy rates to the rates in the thirty “control” states. In this way, such a law could provide one of the first nationwide experimental tests of a policy’s effectiveness. That is, perhaps our country’s federalist structure could allow us to use the states as policy laboratories. Could this be a new use for federalism?

It’s rarely the case that government policies are purposefully applied to some people and not others for the sake of comparison. Even more rarely are policies randomly applied to some and not others, but there are a few impressive examples. In the fall of 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began an experimental housing mobility program in five urban centers based explicitly on random assignment. Families were randomly selected to receive assistance in moving to wealthier neighborhoods. As a result of the randomization, and to the surprise of many, this “Move to Opportunity” program was convincingly deemed to be much less successful than had been previously argued. The National Job Corps Study in 1993 convinced a skeptical Department of Labor that the Job Corps, a training program for disadvantaged 16- to 24-year-olds, is effective for increasing earnings, increasing educational attainment, and decreasing criminality. The random assignment at the core of the study essentially saved the Job Corps from elimination. More recently, the “No Child Left Behind” Act called for the use of “scientifically based research” as the basis for many education programs, indicating at least some appetite for randomization in a recent Congress, if only implicitly.

Inevitably in a geographically-randomized scheme like this, there are concerns about state sovereignty to consider. Of course, the federal government regularly discriminates among the states in funding and regulation, but it rarely does so randomly. In the criminal sentencing arena, there could be Eighth Amendment arguments about “unusual punishments” if people committing identical crimes are subjected to different sentencing guidelines because of their state of residence. And indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s primary basis for selecting its cases is to smooth out differential interpretations of federal law among Circuits.

There are also potential Equal Protection complaints about such a randomization scheme. Because geography does not constitute a subject class and as long as no fundamental rights are implicated, such “randomization of application” laws would probably only have to pass the “rational basis” bar. But does the randomization built into the laws make them by definition "arbitrary" or "capricious," undermining their rationality? Or alternatively, when would the laws be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose? Is determining the effectiveness of a certain policy or program, like a new sex ed curriculum, “legitimate”? Such an inquiry has the potential to put courts in a role analogous to research funding bodies, answering the question: Does the potential result of this trial intervention justify its cost in arbitrariness and unfairness (for courts) or in dollars (for funders)?

Setting aside constitutional and ethical objections for the moment, the value of such a nationwide randomized study is easy to see. Political candidates often campaign on the promise of eliminating programs that do not work and expanding those that do. If they truly seek to know which is which, more randomization in federal policymaking is a powerful solution.

What objections to this randomization scheme, constitutional or otherwise, can you see?  Drop a comment below. Or, if you email me at Adam.C2020@gmail.com, I might highlight them in a future post.

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