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What Good Are States?

Reihan Salam wants "a far broader rethinking of state and federal responsibilities.” Matt Yglesias gives him one:

[I]t’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level. It’s easy to think of kinds of issues that Arlington County, Virginia, should address on its own without input from people who live in Norfolk, VA or Montgomery County, Maryland or Boise, Idaho. These are your local government responsibilities. And it’s also easy to think of issues that should be decided in common between Arlington and Norfolk and Montgomery and Boise. These are your federal responsibilities. But it’s very hard to think of what kinds of things should involve Arlington and Norfolk, but not Montgomery County. Conversely, it’s pretty easy to think of things that should involve Arlington County and Montgomery County but not Norfolk or Boise. These would be metropolitan region issues.

But we don’t have any level of governance that addresses metro area issues. And we don’t really live our lives “at the state level.” And insofar as co-residents of a single state do have idiosyncratic issues in common that tends to be because important fiscal and regulatory powers have been allocated to state government rather than because it actually makes sense for them to have been allocated this way.

The states where you see a real commonality of political interest are small states: Montanans and Alaskans have discrete needs in ways that Californians really don't. That is to say that states have more commonality of interest when they're about as large as a mid-size city, as opposed to a mid-sized country. And because we give the city-sized states as much representation in the Senate as we give to the country-sized states, the city-sized states have even more incentive to emphasize their political interests.

That arrangement might be good for Montanans, but it doesn't make a lot of sense for the country. I've occasionally argued for a more proportional Senate, only to be asked "what do you have against small states?" Well, nothing in particular. I just don't consider states to be a particularly useful political unit. Why not apportion Congress by race? Or population density? Or income? All of those options seem a bit nuts, but the only reason that states make any sense to us is because it's always been thus. All of those options make a lot more sense than organizing representation around the boundaries of Missouri.

And it's not as if there was some high-minded reason for state-based representation a few hundred years back. Rather, states were given a lot of power because that was the only way to entice them into joining a union. It was a coldly political compromise. It's good we got that done, but some of the structural concessions that were required don't make that much sense in the 21st century. Not that "does this make sense?" is a particularly powerful consideration in our system.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 9, 2009; 3:41 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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The trouble is that there's a slippery slope. If we're willing to revisit the historical importance of states as political entities in light of more modern developments, then what's to stop us from revisiting the separation of Church and State or the importance of Juries.
There's been plenty of natural drift away from our founder's vision, we don't need to accelerate the process.

Posted by: PhD9 | October 9, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

what PhD9 said.

I read the story you linked, and Alec MacGillis actually tells the story about the Senate existing to cool down legislation - but then he dismisses it. He never grasps the point that this safety check will inevitably disappoint people tied to immediate outcomes.

The States weren't "enticed" into joining a Union, they banded together and formed one because it was the clear imperative of the times. We are the result, and you have the luxury now to speak from that Union as if its existence was a given, as if we have always been one Society - the Founders would be proud of their achievement.

Today the House majority is trying to vote its way into something I (very dearly) want, but tomorrow it won't be. So we look to the checks and balances, the Senate and the President and the Supreme Court.

The answer to one's current frustration is not to abolish the Union or the States or the Senate, but to buckle down to the work required to pass legislation that will carry all of the component institutions of our system. Then one will have some legislation worth passing.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 9, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Why do we just scrap the constitution and go with Philosopher Kings. Thats what your really hinting at. You are sick of others getting in the way of establishing the Socialist run state that you dream of. Its extremist comments like this that make me wonder who was drunk they decided to give some 25 year old internet poster a real job to spout off this extreme left wing ideas. Then again, we all know the opinion section is pretty liberal.

Posted by: Natstural | October 9, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

That's a whole lot of words to say "State boundaries are pretty arbitrary"

Posted by: JohnSnider | October 9, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

We do actually have Philosopher Kings if you look at what happened to Wyden last week in finance, for example.

The good news is that the revolution is coming and we can rejigger everything at that time. Assuming we still have rejiggering capabilities, that is.

Posted by: bmull | October 9, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse


I can't believe how freely you toss off these American institutions like a state-represented Senate or even the existance of states themselves. Do you have no respect for the Madisonian diffusion of power that was the true genius of the American constitution. Just compare that genius with the evil centralizers of power of the 19th century.

Posted by: lancediverson | October 9, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

You mean like it not making sense that insurance companies are restricted to doing business only within the confines of a state?

Posted by: rixtex | October 9, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

One way to make the Senate more representative, but still allow less-populated states to retain outsized influence would be to expand the size of the Senate by perhaps 30 or 40 seats, and apportion the additional seats by population. All states would retain a minimum of two seats. The number of seats for any one state could be capped at 5 or even 4, to ensure that no single state has exceptionally large influence. Since California is substantially larger than any other state, perhaps that state alone could be assigned 5 seats, while other heavily populated states could be assigned 4, and mid-sized states 3 seats, with the least populated states retaining 2 seats. This would preserve representation and influence for small states disproportionate to their share of the national population, but would simultaneously reduce that influence from its current level.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | October 9, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

A lot of people here saying "sir, have you no shame?" Not a lot of people providing a justification that an citizenin Montana should have a hundred times the political power as a citizen in California.

I also find it ironic that there was a "Philosopher Kings" reference when bmull correctly alludes that the Senate was designed to fit that description. That's why senator's were not directly elected, they were our House of Lords intended to be a governing elite.

Respect for tradition can be a good thing, but is not itself a reason to oppose change. I think direct election of senators was a good idea, as were the 13th and 14th Amendments, among others. Locking in a rigid system of government based on what the founding fathers viewed as necessity more than 200 years ago runs against the organic system they endeavored to develop.


Posted by: etdean1 | October 9, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Before folks start complaining that expansion of the Senate would dilute or undermine the institution, we should remember that originally Senators were appointed by State Legislatures. They were not popularly elected until 1914. This was, as much as the division of Senate seats and six-year terms, a step toward making the Senate an extra step away from "the people" when compared to the House of Representatives.

Also it should be pointed out that there is a very good chance that after the 2010 midterms, the Senate may be considerably more progressive than the House. Democrats are clearly going to lose House seats in 2010. Even if those losses are limited to 20 or fewer, the House will shift rightward. Due to the fact that Republicans will be defending a similar number of Senate seats as Democrats in 2010 and have numerous retirements, Democrats are fairly likely to retain a very similar number of Senate seats to the current mix. It's likely that the 112th Congress will have 58-62 Senate Democrats, meaning the ideological composition of the Senate is basically likely to be unchanged.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | October 9, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

"Assuming we still have rejiggering capabilities, that is."

Bad assumption.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 9, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

"The trouble is that there's a slippery slope. If we're willing to revisit the historical importance of states as political entities in light of more modern developments, then what's to stop us from revisiting the separation of Church and State or the importance of Juries."

There's nothing to stop us from revisiting those things; there never has been. The latter two institutions are generally functional. They deserve to be preserved. We keep them because they're good ideas, not because there's some quasi-mystical imperative to retain them.

Not every idea the founders had was good, and some of their ideas, while good or necessary at the time, have completely outlived their usefulness. We have an awful tendency to cling to old traditions for their own sake, even when they have become indefensible on their merits.

Posted by: adamiani | October 9, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Let us also recall that the Constitution assigned a value of three-fifths of a human being to many U.S. residents for representational purposes. Is there anyone, perhaps apart from Rush Limbaugh, who truly thinks that Constitutional provision deserved to be preserved?

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | October 9, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Other ideas I've seen floated for this (I prefer a unicameral legislative elected on a proportional basis), include splitting some of the bigger states into smaller ones. Northern and Southern California. Maybe letting some smaller states join into bigger ones...

Posted by: supak | October 9, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree that states are pretty arbitrary, but there seem to be much less radical ideas than their dissolution. A few simple rule changes would go a long way toward correcting some of the more unfair power imbalances.

- Remove the power to kill legislation in committee. The function of committees should be to gather information on the pros and cons of proposed legislation, period. No more anonymous holds, no more holding the entire country hostage to a particular Senator's ego, or pet issues (Olympia Snow, blue dogs etc...)

- Replace the filibuster with a formalized and time-limited postponement. Those who seek postponements would be required to put down their concerns, in writing, and would be given a finite amount of time (one to two months) to research and come up with an amendment. This time limit would apply to all Senators, ie they couldn't chain or tag team postponements until a piece of legislation dies. If they have objections, they must say so. Once that time is up, that's it. No more extensions. No more of this ideological crap masquerading as tradition and decorum.

- Term limit Supreme Court justices. This isn't to say that Supremes should be limited to only one term, but instead that their terms exist for a finite amount of time (nine years for example. One year for each justice) Stagger their appointments so that one justices's term expires per year. This would reduce court packing and would allow the country to ditch useless wastes of space like Clarence Thomas, who has been collecting $200,000 per year and hasn't asked a single question in the last three years. Boot the bozo, he's an ideological hack, is way out of his league and is a complete waste of money.

I can think of a lot more tweaks to the existing system to make it better but these three would be a good start.

Posted by: KT14 | October 10, 2009 1:48 AM | Report abuse

Me and Matt think. uh huh. Let's have kids less than a decade out of highschool rethink that one for us, too.

Posted by: truck1 | October 10, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I waiting for Ezra to propose two classes of citizens. One group, those that are educated, those that will support the socialist PETA loving society he desires would get a full vote. Those without a education, those would only get 3/5 a vote. No way this could fail right. If he could restrict the voting to those who shared his opinion about throwing out hundreds of years of history, the world would be perfect.

Or we could not listen to some 25 year old know nothing who has no real reason to have a job. I am sure he could probably be replaced by about 25 different posters at the democratic undgeround.

Posted by: Natstural | October 10, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Let's just have mob rule. We won, so we can do what ever we want. Lysander Spooner would approve.

Posted by: ChristopherGeorge | October 10, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree with this. The Senate bias towards small states is ridiculous. Wyoming residents don't deserve 90x as much Senate representation as Californians.

Posted by: staticvars | October 11, 2009 1:37 AM | Report abuse

Two points:

1. I totally agree with those who are saying that the Senate is badly in need of reform, and that the disproportionate representation created by the 2 per state rule is the source of much of its dysfunction.

2. Unfortunately, nothing much can be done about it without discarding the Constitution and starting over: state representation in the Senate is the one unamendable provision in the Constitution.

Posted by: jwcasey | October 11, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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