Professor Trump’s curious tutorial tour through the tangled landscape of American checks and balances continues to take enlightening new turns. This month, governors of mainly Democratic-leaning states, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, have forged something called the U.S. Climate Alliance.
The pact is designed to counter the president’s June 1 withdrawal of U.S. support for the Paris climate accord. It aims to uphold the international agreement to battle global warming within the boundaries of the individual state “allies.”
This state-level environmental diplomacy reflects a newly intense fascination with what’s called “federalism” among U.S. progressives. It’s the latest feature of America’s convoluted, gridlock-prone political system to have its usefulness highlighted by Donald Trump’s rise to power.
As I’ve fretted here a few times before, Americans of all persuasions — but not least liberals — have often been too impatient with the sluggish and stubborn governmental contraption the founders of our nation bequeathed us. America’s obstructionist (sometimes activist) courts; the Byzantine processes and ornery independence of a two-chamber Congress (above all the Senate’s paralyzing filibuster); the rigidity of a bureaucracy and law-enforcement apparatus bound by the rule of pre-existing law and procedures; various explicit and implied limits on governmental powers — all these complications and more have often frustrated factions that win U.S. elections only to find that actually working “the will of people” once in office, implementing the “change” they invariably seek, is no quick or sure thing.
But somehow, in recent months, as these obstacles have mainly slowed the working of Trump’s will, and exposed his closed-door machinations, as in last week’s Comey hearings — well, the loveliness of our framers’ cumbersome creation is becoming more evident in some quarters.
Anyhow, progressives fighting for states’ rights is something of a novelty. Federalism, the intricate division of powers and boundaries among the different levels of government, may soon challenge liberal legal strategists to explain how the states’ “Climate Alliance” can get around the Constitution’s declaration (Article I, Section 10) that “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress ... enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power ...” (The same potential snag applies to the “National Popular Vote Compact,” a progressive scheme through which cooperating states hope to effectively abolish the Electoral College, an institution liberals hated before the Age of Trump, but hate doubly since November.)
The dogmas of local control and state autonomy have traditionally been conservative articles of faith. It’s usually been folks on the right, in keeping with their longing for smaller, less-intrusive government, who theorize that as much power as possible should always be kept in the hands of governments closest to the people — whose officials supposedly better understand their constituents and will be more responsive than arrogant elites in remote and out-of-touch Washington (or anyway distant and haughty St. Paul).
But the left seems to be coming around to the beauty of local control. This awakening did not begin only with Trump’s rise, but he has supercharged it. And it’s hardly limited to the climate issue:
Over the course of several years, and with gusto since the election, progressive cities and counties have proclaimed themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants, where local police may not independently enforce federal immigration laws. Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to punish uncooperative locales.
But in this case, federalism’s checks and balances may thwart Trump and protect his foes. Court rulings have long established limits on how far the federal government can “coerce” state and local policymakers or “commandeer” their resources, to enforce federal edicts.
Meantime, progressive cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, are flexing muscle in economic affairs as well, enacting or contemplating local minimum wages, sick leave and scheduling mandates and other economic regulations. Republicans at the State Capitol, insisting that uniformity in economic rules is essential, sought, mostly unsuccessfully, to “pre-empt” such municipal marketplace interventions (they did discard a Minneapolis ban on plastic bags).
These examples and others, of course, demonstrate that neither conservatives nor liberals display much consistent principle on this question of where decisions ought properly be made. GOP champions of local autonomy suddenly favor state supremacy over minimum wages. And immigration is obviously a matter for strictly federal control in conservative eyes — except that it wasn’t back when Arizona was trying to enforce tougher immigration restrictions than Obama-era Washington wanted.
Liberals want it both ways, too. Locals apparently know best how to regulate wages (or guns or plastic), but grade school bathroom policies for the whole country needed to be decreed by the Obama White House.
No doubt some decisions by their very nature are best made locally, and others better resolved nationally. But as in many disputes over decisionmaking processes, the temptation is great to simply see the virtue of grass-roots decisionmaking whenever it seems likely that a grass-roots decision is going to go your way — while the value of a bigger-picture view, and of the voice of the whole community being heard, is clearer when state or federal action is more apt to yield the policy you happen to favor.
It’s also important to remember that more local levels of government don’t necessarily protect individual freedoms more vigilantly than centralized governments. Sometimes localism empowers heavy-handed parochial majorities and grass-roots despotisms. States’ rights, after all, was the battle cry of Southern slave owners.
In the end, federalism’s main value is simply as another check and balance. America’s elaborate scattering of powers among different levels of government gives dissent one more way to be heard and compromise one more encouragement.
The key is to respect in each case the existing rules about where a given type of decision should be made — because the rules were made before anyone knew which “side” would be advantaged by them.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.