More than four years ago Congress passed President Barack Obama’s health-care proposal, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, on party lines. Whether one favors it or not, Obamacare is a momentous measure.
But as far as other major legislation is concerned, Washington has scarcely been heard from since Obamacare became law in March 2010. In midterm elections that year, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, which they retained in 2012. The by-product of these elections has been continual gridlock between the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.
With the federal government stalled, state lawmakers have galloped along, albeit in somewhat different directions, on issues ranging from abortion to the minimum wage. Thirty-six states are controlled by a single party, making it easier for their legislatures to pass controversial laws. And unlike their Washington counterparts, state legislators have managed to find consensus on issues such as human trafficking that do not break down along partisan lines.
“One of the great mistakes that national experts and the media have made in the 20 years I’ve been in this business is not paying enough attention to the states,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That’s never been more true than in the last 12 months, when states have been innovating in both conservative and liberal directions while very little is happening in Washington.”
The contrast between federal inaction and state accomplishment is most evident on the high-profile issue of the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage, last raised in 2009, is $7.25 an hour. Obama wants it increased to $10.10, one of many of his proposals that has languished in Congress in the face of Republican opposition.
In contrast, nine states and the District of Columbia have increased the minimum wage in 2014, bringing to 21 the number of states with higher wage levels than the federal government. All states in which Democrats are in charge now have higher minimum wages than the federal government.
Republicans are also increasingly aware of the popular support for raising wages for those at the bottom of the economic totem pole. A Gallup survey last year found that three-fourths of Americans favor increases in the minimum wage. In Michigan last month, the Republican-controlled Legislature boosted the minimum wage in steps over four years from its current $7.40 an hour to $9.25.
State actions have encouraged Democratic-run cities with large populations of labor union members to follow suit. Seattle this month boosted its minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years for large firms and seven years for small ones. This is the nation’s highest minimum wage. San Francisco, Chicago and New York City are eying similar increases. At $9.32 an hour, Washington has the highest state minimum, with future increases indexed to inflation. On June 18, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that will raise the minimum wage in the Bay State to $11 by 2017.
Republicans control both legislative chambers in 23 states compared to 13 for the Democrats and another 13 with mixed control. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral legislature.) Many of the GOP-run states have imposed new abortion restrictions during the past two years, raising the prospect that the U.S. Supreme Court may eventually revisit its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to abortion. For now, abortions remain legal throughout the country, but they are increasingly hedged with restrictions that make it difficult for women to obtain them, especially in the South.
Lately, the anti-abortion movement has pushed measures that require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have imposed such requirements, which are being challenged in the courts by pro-abortion groups. One federal court has upheld the Texas law, while another blocked the Mississippi law, which would leave the state without an abortion provider.
Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that provides health care for low-income Americans, has become another partisan fault line. Obamacare required that states expand Medicaid, but the Supreme Court decision otherwise upholding the law’s constitutionality permitted states to maintain their current programs without penalty. Since then, Democratic-controlled states have embraced Medicaid expansion while most Republican-controlled states have not.
States have also faced environmental issues that Congress has been unwilling to address. One of the hot-button environmental issues is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process in which sand, water and chemicals are injected into shale deep underground to free trapped oil and natural gas. In California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 signed into law a bill with strong state controls on fracking, and scores of municipalities and townships throughout the nation have banned the process in their localities.
Fracking has now emerged as a key issue in the 2012 elections in the swing state of Colorado, where Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is trying to forge a compromise that would keep an anti-fracking measure off the November ballot. The ballot measure has the potential to harm Democrats, who are divided on the issue. Republicans have shown more of a solid front in opposing restrictions on fracking as harmful to energy production and jobs. The compromise sought by Hickenlooper and other Democratic leaders would allow local governments more control over energy development in their backyards.
The fracking controversy in Colorado is illustrative of why this year’s legislative elections may have more impact on policy during the next two years than the more publicized battle for control of the Senate. However the Senate races turn out, Republicans are considered likely to maintain control of the House, signaling more gridlock during the remainder of the Obama presidency.
Party control of one or both legislative chambers is up for grabs in at least 10 states, with potential implications for fiscal, environmental and education policy. Republicans are targeting both chambers in Colorado, where the Democrats now hold narrow majorities. They are also targeting Democratic-held state senates in Iowa, Maine and Oregon. More remote but potentially winnable, Republicans claim, are the New Hampshire House, which has switched control in three of the last four elections, and West Virginia, where Democrats hold both houses but Obama is highly unpopular.
Democrats have their eyes on the Republican-held state Senate in Wisconsin and the Republican-controlled House in Arkansas. Both parties seek to win outright control of the New York and Washington state senates, now run by coalitions although Democrats hold paper control.
Republicans have a powerful historical advantage. In 26 of 28 midterm elections dating back to 1902, the party in power in the White House lost ground in state legislative elections. The exceptions were in 1934, in the Great Depression, when Democrats added to commanding majorities, and 2002, when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, overshadowed the election, and Republicans gained seats.
But the Republicans are near historic highs in legislative seats with little room for growth. After their 2010 victories, GOP legislators in many states skillfully redistricted on the basis of that year’s census to keep themselves in power. Storey, who foresees no “wave election” for either party, says Republicans may be limited in what they can achieve in 2012 because they already have achieved so much.
Whatever happens in November, states will hold the key to national progress during the next two years. Obama recently announced a new climate change initiative that is intended to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Instead of imposing a uniform national standard for power plant carbon emissions, the initiative will rely on states to devise approaches to meet goals set in the nation’s capital.
As The New York Times observes, this was the approach Obama used to expand health care under the Affordable Care Act, “often with rocky results.”
Rocky the results have certainly been in some states, but Obamacare has been more successful than it would have been if the federal government had depended on a national mandate and an inadequate website. Led by a few innovative states with creative technologies and an appreciation of federalism, the Affordable Care Act is slowly coming into its own.
Despite the pall cast on national politics by the gridlock in Washington, states have shown more often than not that they are capable of stepping up to the plate.
— Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.