Bad State Governments, continued

In late 2006, when I was still living in New York City, I posted on this blog "New York -- Worst State Government Ever?" in which I argued that New York State's government was in a meaningful sense not a democracy, because it is run by "three men in a room" -- the governor, the House leader, and the Senate leader -- only one of whom had any real chance of being dislodged from his office by an election. Moreover, unlike the federal government and most other state governments, the government in New York vests nearly complete power over the legislative process in the leaders of the two houses, making it virtually impossible for any other legislator to influence political decisions.

As I prepare to move to New York state for my sabbatical year, I now find that New York has figured out a way to make matters worse. The Republicans' long-time stranglehold on the state Senate was finally broken in 2008, changing the party of one of the three men in the room. That did not really make the system any better, and in some ways it is a lot worse, because the newly-empowered senate Democrats have shown absolutely no ability to participate constructively in the legislative process (understandably, one supposes, given that they have never had any opportunity to develop abilities along these lines). The New York Times columnist Gail Collins (about whom I offered only faint praise in a post this past Spring) has written some excellent pieces about the pathetic performance of the state legislature, and senate Democrats in particular. (Sorry for the lack of links, but I'm on deadline!)

Now, however, we face an entirely new type of craziness, as two Democrats in the state senate have recently defected, giving control of the senate back to the Republicans. Or has it? Apparently, the Democrats have locked the doors to the senate chamber and will not say where they are hidden. Collins has an excellent column in today's Times describing the mess and pointing out that some of the characters involved are truly loathsome (one being under indictment for slashing his girlfriend's face with a piece of broken glass). It's funny until it isn't.

As Collins points out, the claim that New York has the worst state government, while facially plausible, is hardly undisputed. Tales of similar craziness abound in state capitols across the country, notably Illinois, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, and Connecticut. Which raises an interesting question: Should the chronically dysfunctional nature of state governance in this country cause us to move power away from the states, or should we instead push more power onto the states in the hope that greater responsibility will force them to reform themselves?

Virtually everyone agrees, at least in the abstract, with Brandeis's description of the states as "laboratories of democracy." (For an interesting argument against the standard view that Brandeis's argument was meant to support federal diversity, see here.) Whether liberal or conservative, federalist or Federalist, it is possible to find situations in which one would worry about taking power away from the states even as one would support federali. When the abstract arguments meets the lunacy of Albany, Trenton, and Austin, however, should we not admit that -- as bad as the federal government might be compared to what it should be -- state governments are a lost cause?

It is possible that state governments are as bad as they are precisely because they have become less and less relevant in the post-New Deal era. There is very little reason to aspire to high state legislative office as a career goal, and those who do so usually seem to have an eye on national office. If the state legislatures had more important things to do, they might attract people to serve who are not clowns and criminals.

This argument is a larger version of a phenomenon that I noticed a few years ago (before control of Congress switched from the Republicans back to the Democrats), when the staff of the Joint Economic Committee was issuing a stream of simply embarrassing political hack work dressed up as policy commentary. At the same time, however, the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation was producing professional, nonpartisan work that everyone took very seriously. When I asked some colleagues why this was so, the most convincing answer that I received was that the JCT actually has important things to do and must do it quickly, giving no one the luxury of turning the committee into an arm of a political party. The JEC, by contrast, essentially has nothing important to do.

Even if it were true that state legislatures could rise to the occasion if challenged, there is still a transition period to worry about. That transition period is also known as the immediate future. From my perspective, too much damage is being done by state governments as it is, and it is thus appropriate to respond pragmatically to reality by assigning responsibilities to those bodies most likely to act responsibly. Yes, this has a self-reinforcing nature to it; but if we really want to save the states from becoming less and less relevant, the first step should not be giving them more to do even as they fail in their current endeavors. The first step is to clean up state governments.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan