How to beat partisan politics? Ask your state government.
To avoid gridlock and partisan politics look to your state government. The states increasingly hold the power and influence over Washington in shaping American law – from safety to energy to social justice.
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That isn’t to say states are immune from gridlock. Recent fiscal fights in California between legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have left many wondering if that state is governable. And in the continued partisan warfare in New York, the two party caucuses in the state Senate refused last year to even meet in the same space for a month.Skip to next paragraph
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But states also have shown a greater willingness to put aside differences and tackle topics that in the past would have been seen as the province of the federal government. One example is immigration: In 2009, 10 states enacted tougher penalties for human smuggling and involuntary servitude, and provided aid to victims of those immigration-related crimes.
“Unfortunately, the states have led where Congress has fallen down on the job,” says Tom Hucker, a Democratic member of Maryland’s House of Delegates who worked to pass the nation’s first statewide living-wage law in 2007. “Many of us had hoped this would be a much more activist Congress, but we know how long it takes to get things done, and when they do get done, it’s often watered down. So that means there’s more opportunity for us.”
To take that opportunity requires conscious tactical decisions. With Iowa’s healthcare legislation, Republicans say that meant opting not to be obstructionist, given the issue’s importance. They said it made more practical sense to work with Democrats rather than repeatedly accuse them of seeking a massive government-run program.
“We said this is something we should not fight about and is something we should move forward on,” says Republican Kraig Paulsen, Iowa’s House minority leader. It was easy to win strong bipartisan support, he says, because the work in the House’s subcommittees was transparent and inclusive; because all sides had input, the resulting ideas “flat made a whole lot of sense.” That stands in contrast to Congress, where Republicans in the minority accuse Democrats and the Obama administration of shutting them out of negotiations.
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Representative Paulsen says some inherently institutional features at the state level encourage bipartisanship. Unlike most legislative bodies that segregate the parties on each side of the chamber, Hawkeye State members are intermingled, enabling them to converse with a range of colleagues during floor debates. “To the right I have a Republican and to the left I have a Democrat, and in front of me there’s a Democrat,” Paulsen says. “It provides some casual opportunities for collaboration.”
It also helps that minority parties in Iowa and other states – unlike Congress – can’t rely on the filibuster. The US Senate, these days, only has to threaten that parliamentary weapon to stall a vote if there are fewer than 60 votes to pass legislation. But in the few states where the filibuster is permitted, state lawmakers can only use it the old-fashioned way, by talking endlessly to stall business.
Also state lawmakers often say they keenly recognize the value of collaborating with someone whose politics diverge from theirs.
Texas Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a blunt-talking Latina, likes to recount her success in 2001 in enlisting help from an unlikely ally, the late Teel Bivins, who was a candid, conservative Amarillo rancher. She knew she needed Republican help for her 2001 bill to allow Texas-born children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition and financial aid – an unpopular idea with the GOP.