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To End Washington Gridlock, It's Time to Experiment with States' Rights

by Germaine Descant, published

Gridlock dominates American politics at the national level. Among other things, partisan animosity and distrust undermines congressional function. Partisan or ideological differences and policy choices are so far apart that the two sides usually talk past each other with little mutual understanding or willingness to understand.

According to polling data, political willingness to compromise is generally low among most conservatives and many liberals. House speaker John Boehner sees political compromise this way: “I reject the word.” That attitude guarantees ineffective governance, which harms the public interest.

From a rational point of view, the situation is unacceptable. Gridlock amounts to more than just a failure of the two-party system to govern in the public interest. It fosters public distrust of the federal government, which makes efficient governing impossible.

To some degree, partisan animosity and associated gridlock damages everything from the economy and national security to foreign policy and research policy.

A common complaint that conservatives make about federal governance is that many matters should rightfully be decided by individual states, not the federal government. Disputes over states’ rights versus federal government prerogative are old, beginning with the founding of the Republic. The two sides argue based on their ideology, biases, and/or self-interest. That amounts to unresolvable arguments over ideology or “political religion” because the arguments are largely based on personal morals or faith.

For many contested issues, a single national federal policy may work better than differing individual state policies. Because America is complex and dynamic, it is time to let states test their policy choices if they wish.

A single federal policy that best served the public interest at one time may no longer do so. An objective assessment should elucidate competing state and federal policy outcomes. If one accepts that as basically true and believes that federal gridlock is damaging to the public interest, then looking for new solutions is rational.

Although no single governance tactic will completely eliminate gridlock or partisan animosity, policy competition via opting out of some federal laws makes sense. Opt-out flexibility demonstrates good will and it affords all states the freedom to test the efficacy of their policy choices.

If an experiment clearly fails, then its proponents have to acknowledge failure and live with it or change their policies. Citizens in those states can then support or reject their political leadership with their votes.

Monitor the experiment critically but fairly

One version of opting out of a federal policy that could rationally be left to states -- e.g. no child left behind, federal health care law, the VA system for veterans, or social security -- would posit that a state wanting to opt out can do so and keep the federal tax money it would otherwise pay.

In return, any opt-out would be accompanied by funded, unbiased federal and/or academic data-gathering and analysis. Politics grounded in empirical data, unbiased logic, and an understanding of human behavior can be highly effective. The payoffs of carefully monitored opt-out experiments could be very high.

Since human experts are usually not much better than chimpanzees at predicting the future, results of the opt-out program could be quite surprising. Unbiased information from carefully monitored opt-out experiments could show that a federal or state solution or non-solution to an issue performs best.

Obviously, there will be disputes over most everything, including what can be opted out of, how to analyze the data, and how to define success and failure. History suggests that there probably will be some ideological and/or economic resistance to simply gathering the data, but opt-out freedom should carry at least that price.

Benefits of monitored opt-out experiments could include potential softening of partisan animosity and maybe reduced federal gridlock. If nothing else, it should be easier to pass legislation that includes an opt-out for one or more states.

Politicians from states sympathetic to states’ rights or hostile to the federal government would probably hesitate to block what those states want. That should better serve the public interest than the current dysfunction.

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