Jack Hatch shook his head in frustration as he prepared to wade into yet another partisan brawl over healthcare. The Democratic Iowa state senator was co-chairing a 2007 special commission hearing on the subject in Mason City, and his GOP colleagues were carping about how an overly bureaucratic “Hillarycare”-style plan would be proposed for their state.
That move, he says, made the difference between gridlock and the momentum that has put the state in the forefront of healthcare reform. The pitch of the group had tilted more toward partisan Washington Beltway politics than the small-town pragmatism Iowan lawmakers pride themselves on, and Ms. Kuhle was about to shame them for it.
“Is this the way senators talk to each other?” she asked exasperatedly. “I can’t believe it! We’re not here to talk about politics – we’re here to talk about the problem of healthcare!”
The outburst, recalls Kuhle with obvious satisfaction, “just kind of shut people up.” They started to listen.
That, she and others say, is what the smaller arena of statehouse politics allows – more listening and, as a result, more action. Indeed, agrees Hatch, “that was the defining moment. At that point it opened the floodgates, and all the stakeholders started to talk seriously.”
The eventual result, which both sides say was crafted through an open subcommittee process, has been the passage over the past two years of bipartisan legislation that makes the Hawkeye State one of the nation’s healthcare leaders: Nearly 100 percent of all children in the state now have healthcare coverage and prescription drug costs have been reined in while providing more coverage options for businesses and families.
State officials from both parties say such gridlock breakthrough enables them to outstrip their counterparts in Congress in getting things done. They say their achievements can teach Washington, D.C., a few things about bipartisanship and, in the process, potentially help defuse the voter anger enveloping the nation.
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The Democrat-versus-Republican skirmishing that holds up major federal legislation is less of an obstacle in statehouses, clearing a path for innovative bills on issues that have immediate and direct effects on constituents’ lives. The result is that state lawmakers are shaping the legislative landscape of American life more than at any time in the past half century, say political observers. And they’d probably have even more clout if they weren’t in such dire economic straits.
States often are described as legislative “laboratories of innovation.” Their willingness to experiment and cooperate, say experts, has become especially critical as the country seeks a way out of the economic crisis and as the public mood toward government has soured.
“It used to be that the US could weather every storm because we had the money,’’ says Richard Nathan, former director of the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and author of several books on federalism. “Now, government has to get smarter and that’s the big challenge. So I think personally that what [Congress] should try to do with legislation should involve the states – they’ve been responsible for doing what gets done in the domestic sector.”
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.
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.
She says she told Senator Bivins that the government already had paid to educate the students in public schools and that it made no sense to punish them; he asked for some restrictions to mollify his colleagues and eventually agreed to push the DREAM Act into law in 2001.
“People looked at us and said, ‘If I have a conservative rural Republican and a big-city lady Democrat who can come to a middle ground, it must be good policy,’ ” recounts Senator Van de Putte, who co-chaired the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
In Washington State, House Democrats in the majority often turn to Republican Mike Armstrong on government reform issues. They recently noticed Representative Armstrong had introduced a bill to overhaul the state’s Department of Social and Health Services and decided to use it as a way to showcase their interest in improving how the bureaucracy functions. The Ways and Means Committee passed the bill in early February, 15 to 7.
“We decided we’re here to really show reform and we really want to cut the costs of government, so we grabbed Mike’s bill,” says Democratic state Rep. Larry Seaquist. “It’s still his bill, but now we’ve cooperated on it.”
If Congress wants the same results, Representative Seaquist says, it should look to his state. Unlike Capitol Hill, where committees have separate Democratic and Republican staffs, every panel in Olympia has a single nonpartisan staff. Ethics rules also are stringent, with campaign contributions forbidden starting 30 days before each legislative session.
“We still have our knock-down, drag-out fights, like on how we approach taxes,” he says. “But this economic situation is so bad – and voters are so angry and sick and tired of partisan politics – that we’ve been working together on substantive things.”
Maine Democratic state Rep. Sharon Treat was determined last year to pass a comprehensive law assisting residents in home foreclosures. She sought out Republicans and spent weeks reworking portions to address their concerns. Eventually, the bill passed, starting a pilot project in Maine’s hardest-hit county last July that went statewide in January.
“I just worked, worked, worked to get consensus.... We really have a foreclosure problem, and quite a few legislators put in bills to address the problem,” Representative Treat says. “While they were all Democrats, they weren’t coming from a partisan or ideological place.”
As with home foreclosures, state officials say that education, environment, and energy have become some of the most common areas of bipartisan collaboration, largely because they affect everyone’s lives and attract avid voter attention.
Veteran Wisconsin Democratic state Sen. Conrad Black notes that the first bill he worked on a quarter century ago was a measure to reduce acid rain – an action that the federal government subsequently took. He also became involved in bills to ban the pesticide DDT and to halt depletion of the ozone layer that also eventually became federal issues.
Senator Black is currently among the cosponsors of a comprehensive statewide energy bill. The same day that President Obama beseeched Congress in his recent State of the Union message to send him a national energy law, Wisconsin lawmakers were holding the second of six public hearings on their own bill, with the expectation of it being on the governor’s desk by Earth Day in April.
The proposed “Clean Energy Jobs Act” would expand the state’s use of renewable energy from sources such as solar and wind, relaxing some restrictions on new nuclear power plants and creating jobs in “green” technologies. The measure has drawn complaints from Republicans who fear it will increase energy costs. But Black’s been seeking GOP converts by touting the potential for jobs in the renewable sector, because the state won’t have to venture outside its boundaries as often to purchase oil, coal, and natural gas.
“We spend $20 billion a year on fossil fuels, and $16 billion of it leaves our state’s economy lickety-split,” he says. “That’s an incredible drain. If we keep a significant portion of that in the state, we’ll create thousands and thousands of jobs.”
In Maryland, Delegate Hucker was able to win the backing of GOP House of Delegates minority leader Anthony O’Donnell last year on a proposal to reduce pollution in Chesapeake Bay by requiring auto manufacturers to pay to recycle mercury capsules in older American cars. Hucker noted that Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration originally opposed the idea.
“With a Democratic governor, Republicans want to be able to tell their base that they’re holding him accountable and being good watchdogs,” Hucker says.
With bipartisan backing, Governor O’Malley eventually supported the legislation. Lawmakers in neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia are now considering similar bills, having recently invited Hucker and Delegate O’Donnell to brief them on it.
With the prevailing political winds shifting to the right, some states are moving away from government intervention in constituents’ lives. Montana and Tennessee in 2009 enacted legislation declaring that firearms and ammunition manufactured, sold, and used within their borders are not subject to federal regulations and taxes. Several other states are considering similar legislation this year. And Virginia is entertaining what legislators say is a record number of proposals to ease gun restrictions – 20 of them passed the House of Delegates last month. The most controversial among them would repeal a ban on buying more than one gun a month and allow people to carry concealed guns into bars if they don’t drink.
Also in Virginia, where Robert F. McDonnell became the first new GOP governor in eight years in January, the Democratically controlled state Senate passed measures that would eliminate requirements that individuals buy health insurance.
By mid-February, variations of that legislation had been introduced in more than 30 other states. The only state with a law in place was Arizona, which passed a measure last year asking voters this November to approve a state constitutional amendment on the issue.
Republican Glen Coffee, the Oklahoma Senate’s president pro tempore, predicts the issue of compelling individuals to buy insurance “will get a lot of attention, because what they do with healthcare at the national level impacts our state budget.”
For the most part, though, lawmakers insist they can continue to be more cooperative than Congress. That extends to talking with their counterparts in other states on the best ways to refine and revive unsuccessful legislation.
“We all learn from our failures – that’s the beauty of state legislatures,’’ says Texas’ Van de Putte. “If anything fails on the federal level, it’s either covered up or not recognized. I’ve had friends in Massachusetts say to me, ‘When you expand your healthcare system, make sure you bring everybody to the table – even the naysayers.”
It’s a simple exercise, she adds, that D.C.’s lawmakers would be well served to emulate.