When recruiting young professionals to work at a state-based think tank, one must overcome the glitter and allure of Washington, D.C. It’s understandable. The national government creates money and runs a military that’s second to none. D.C. enjoys airtime, clicks, household names, rising stars.
But to assume that the action is in D.C. is to overlook a major reality in America.
Gridlock is the D.C. status quo. New presidents pledge to settle national disagreements, but then they discover something: Issuing executive orders is easier than working with Congress. Have any praiseworthy laws come out of Congress in the last two decades? Few come to mind. And the daily news from D.C.? Pontificating, popularity surveys and tabloid headlines.
Meanwhile, thanks to federalism, the heavy work of making policy happens in the states.
The coronavirus pandemic offers a good example. Throughout 2020 there were few things for the federal government to do, and states were the primary actors in responding to the crisis. Governors became household names across the country, as they experimented with different approaches.
Likewise, if D.C. does respond to a major concern, it’s likely the issue reached a critical mass in the states first.
Policy changes move quickly in the states, often driven by our public policy allies. Our friends in Mississippi helped enact major income tax relief that will allow families to keep more than $5 billon over the next decade. Louisiana passed the Right to Earn a Living Act, which gives people the ability to challenge regulations that prevent them from getting a job. Pennsylvania funded last year’s largest expansion of a school choice program — and it was signed by a Democratic governor. In Michigan we advanced auto insurance reform, cut job-killing regulations and secured property rights, even with divided government.
A reader might ask, “Yes, but what about the U.S. Supreme Court?” No question, the Supreme Court is a model of activity. But even when the court issues a landmark decision — such as Janus, Espinoza or Dobbs — states are often the ones that implement it.
A few years ago, I spent a day in the nation’s capital. Several policy advocates met, trying to get a House subcommittee hearing scheduled. Note: It wasn’t a subcommittee vote, a committee hearing, a vote on the floor, or a signing ceremony. Just a House subcommittee meeting. We spent all day on it and efforts continued after we left.
Later that week, a school leader called the Mackinac Center. “I have a problem with my school and someone thought you could help.” We met in Lansing that very day, talked to several policymakers and helped draft legislation by day’s end. The bill later passed and helped make the situation much better.
The House subcommittee hearing? Never happened. In D.C., even the unimportant things move slowly.
We need good people and trusted institutions both in Washington, D.C., and in the states. But for policy impact, look to the states.