Kansas anti-abortion law: How divided can the states get?

States are in an ideological arms race, epitomized by dueling abortion bills floated by legislatures from Kansas to New York. Is this federalism on steroids?

John Hanna/AP
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses tax and budget issues with reporters at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Brownback is defending his proposal to cancel a scheduled drop in the state sales tax to stabilize the budget while pursuing income tax cuts.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is set to sign a tough new anti-abortion law that says life begins at conception and bans sex-selection abortions. In response, states like Washington and New York are scrambling to reduce restrictions on the procedures, such as loosening rules around late-term abortions.

The recent bipolar moves in Kansas and New York suggest that US states are increasingly leaving gridlocked Washington in the dust on policy ranging from abortion to marijuana, from immigration to guns. The result is a disparate patchwork of laws and policies that some suggest are beginning to turn America from a homogenous land of centrists and moderates into a partisan land of balkanized rules, economies, and lifestyles.

“There is nothing especially new about states going their own way,” New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote late last month. “We fought a civil war, after all. And we have become accustomed to categorizing states as red or blue, based on their electoral choices. But it feels as if every news cycle brings another seemingly random example of a state veering off the mainstream… What’s up with that?”

To be sure, the rise of the tea party movement has helped fuel a nearly unprecedented situation where 75 percent of US statehouses are under single party control even as Washington seems mired in perpetual partisan gridlock. The widening policy gap between states, too, comes against another backdrop: The decision by the Obama administration, particularly though Obamacare, to use states as proxies to install federal policy.

“This is an administration that doesn’t take the states and locals as it finds them. It has an agenda,” Paul Posner, a federalism expert at George Mason University in Virginia, has said, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet while corralling states by dangling federal money may be in part successful, it hasn’t enabled the administration to end run its agenda around Congress.

Gun control is one example. While Washington has so far failed to pass post-Newtown gun control laws, a handful of liberal states in the Northeast have gone ahead with new restrictions, including expanded background checks. But 15 other states have loosened gun restrictions in the wake of the massacre. On Friday, the Kansas Senate passed legislation that would prevent federal agents from confiscating guns made in Kansas.

And states are making broader arguments about how state policy can impact regional economies. While critics say Mr. Brownback, for example, has put the state’s economy in jeopardy by spearheading the abolishing of a state income tax, the Governor, in giving the GOP weekly address on Saturday, touted “red state” models as creating economic activity while Washington seems bent on stifling economic growth.

"The ideas on how to fix the federal government are now percolating in the states, 30 of which are led by Republican governors," he says. “You see, you don’t change America by changing Washington – you change America by changing the states. And that’s exactly what Republican governors are doing across the country – taking a different approach to grow their states’ economies and fix their governments with ideas that work."

So far, empowered states may be winning the policy struggle with Washington, some experts suggest.

“Divided national government gives states flexibility, and divided government gives states wider range of opportunities to influence feds, and makes it harder for feds to resolve issues,” writes Thomas Gais of the Rockefeller Institute in a recent paper.

In academic circles, there are two schools of thought to explain the phenomenon of runaway states: One is that legislative hubris by political “elites” are running roughshod over the wishes of moderate voters, who make up the vast majority of the electorate.

“In America today, there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it purports to represent,” Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams write in their recent book “Disconnect.”

“The political process today not only is less representative than it was a generation ago and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at a minimum no better,” they write. “The present disconnect is cause for concern and not something that can be discounted as either normal or unimportant.”

The countervailing argument is that voters have become more partisan, and are, in fact, the ones pushing state legislators to move forward on pet policy projects.

“There is no disconnect between elected officials and the voters who put them in office,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz writes in “The Polarized Public.” “There is, in fact, a close connection between them. Polarization is not a result of a failure of representation; it is a result of successful representation.”

Some Americans, including Mr. Keller at the New York Times, are cautious about the states’ newfound policy leadership. “These experiments may produce smart ideas … or the state labs may cook up poisons,” he writes.

Other Americans welcome the states’ newfound policy leadership.

“What the nation needs more than ever is federalism to allow New Yorkers to live how they would like and Nebraskans to live how they would like; and constitutionalism to ensure that all citizens are treated with respect for their individual rights,” writes Kyle Becker, a columnist for the Independent Journal Review.

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