The Power of the States - Political Stalemate in Washington Magnifies Decisions Made by the States

By Heineman, Robert | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

The Power of the States - Political Stalemate in Washington Magnifies Decisions Made by the States


Heineman, Robert, The World and I


Political gridlock in Congress almost certainly ensures that decisions made within the various statehouses across the nation will have a critical impact on national politics. Over the past decade, both the Supreme Court and Congress have increasingly devolved important policy issues to the states. In an era with only limited initiative possible at the national level, state politics will become even more crucial to national policy. Federalism remains alive and well in the United States.

Both parties can claim some successes from the November elections at the state level. Republicans picked up the House in Vermont and Pennsylvania and the Senate in New Hampshire. Democrats, on the other hand, were less successful; basically, they must be satisfied with obtaining toeholds in two important states in which they previously lacked effective representation.

Avoiding a partisan shutout in Colorado, they captured the state Senate, and in Arizona they managed a tie in the same chamber. In both instances, they were assisted by open seats created by term limits. The closeness of the national results was paralleled in some states, with the Senate elections in Arizona, Maine, South Carolina, and Vermont resulting in tied chambers.

Even less partisan change resulted from the gubernatorial races. Democrats picked up an additional governorship with their victory in West Virginia. The nearest miss for Republicans was in Missouri. This campaign was overshadowed by the tragic death of Mel Carnahan, the incumbent governor who was running for the U.S. Senate and who had strongly endorsed the eventual winner, Bob Holden. Additional complications arose from intervention by state judges, who allowed the polls in heavily Democratic St. Louis to remain open 45 minutes beyond the official closing time. Out of 2.3 million votes cast, James Talent lost by slightly over 21,000 votes.

Partisan legislatures

The partisan composition of the state legislatures is important because they must realign their legislative and congressional districts to conform to the "one person, one vote" constitutional mandate. This means that electoral districts must, as far as possible, be equal in population. Adjustments occasioned by the population shifts recorded by the 2000 census will have to be made in all states at both the state legislative and congressional levels. Changes in state legislative districts tend to be relatively minor, however. Incumbent legislators, whatever their party, do not like to disturb the electoral status quo within their districts, and the number of legislative seats remains the same.

Similarly, in states whose congressional representation remains unchanged, there should be little controversy over meeting the constitutional standard. Most of the political and partisan heat will be generated in states that must redistrict because they have either lost or gained congressional seats. At this time, it appears that eight states (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Connecticut, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin) will lose congressional seats and eight (California, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, and Colorado) will gain them.

Although it is fashionable to construct redistricting scenarios that inflict serious partisan harm in the House of Representatives, for the most part these projections fail to consider political dynamics. State legislators must recognize that the top priority of congressional incumbents is the need to protect their chances for reelection. Whether Democrat or Republican, members of Congress do not look kindly on proposals to change their electoral bases. Thus, the raw politics of self-preservation limits the potential for partisan advantage flowing from redistricting.

In particular, legislatures in states gaining congressional seats will probably try to make redistricting relatively painless. This includes California, which has the largest congressional delegation by far and will gain an additional seat this year. …

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