We love federalism . . . until we don’t: committing to federalism would promote innovation, accountability, and hedge against national politics

Federalism—preserving the states’ independent policymaking role to promote innovation and democratic accountability—is a value embraced by people across the political spectrum. Yet support for it in practice often tends to be conditional: if a desired policy is easier to achieve at the federal level, federalism concerns are scuttled; but when national politics go the other way, we turn to the states as a means of resistance.

The latest example of this is the lawsuit that the Trump Administration has filed against California over the states’ opposition to aggressive enforcement of federal immigration laws. Whatever you think of the underlying issue, the lawsuit is a significant attack on federalism. Some aspects of the case may be a close call—see this exchange between Professors Ilya Somin and Roderick Hills—but the main issue is not: The United States challenges California’s decision to withhold its own resources, including state and local law enforcement, from aiding federal immigration enforcement. If federalism means anything, it must mean that the federal government cannot commandeer the states and force them to do its bidding.

Inconsistency over federalism is a bipartisan sport, of course. Many praising state resistance to the Trump administration oppose federalism protections under different political circumstances. During the last administration, for instance, environmental groups sued to conscript states into enforcing federal environmental regulation, rather than letting states design their own policies.

 

Seattle’s natural storm water drainage system

In the long run, a principled commitment to federalism, regardless of short-term political advantage, would promote better outcomes. It would unleash states to develop innovative ways to address environmental challenges. Given the intractable trade-offs that must be made, that experimentation is even more important, perhaps, than many other policy issues. If you want to discover the most cost effective way to reduce water pollution from urban storm-water runoff, for instance, it’s a lot better to have 50 states (and hundreds of cities) testing different options than having a single approach imposed from the top-down.

 

Environmental federalism also promotes accountability. Decisions made closer to the people who benefit from them and bear the costs will likely be more informed because it is easier for voters to know what’s going on in their own community than to understand complex national regulations and how they apply in every other community.

Similarly, it is easier for voters to monitor whether a well-intentioned policy is having the desired result when those effects are more localized. You have a much better sense of the air and water quality in your own neighborhood than you do of how some obscure federal regulation is being enforced six states away.

Armed with better knowledge, state and local voters can better hold their politicians accountable for environmental missteps than they can national figures. Your odds of influencing the outcome of a city council election are orders of magnitude higher than your odds of influencing the presidential election or the selection of the EPA administrator.

Finally, federalism is an effective hedge against national politics. An environmental strategy that hinges on your side winning every presidential election, not to mention always controlling Congress, is a losing one. That approach has led to perpetual brinkmanship on environmental issues. It would be far better to embrace state diversity on environmental values and ideas about the best means of promoting them. The wins might be smaller, but so would the losses. Ultimately, redistributing our eggs away from the single federal basket would promote compromise and collaboration as tools to promote environmental values.

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