Federalism in the Age of Obama: Is the President Exploiting the States' Fiscal Woes to Push His Policies?

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There's one thing both critics and supporters of the new Arizona immigration law can agree on. The state acted out of frustration at Washington's inability to address the issue.

This is a point President Barack Obama stressed during a speech calling on Republican Governor Jan Brewer to veto the measure. It's also a point Brewer made hours later at the signing ceremony for the bill, which calls on local police to check the proof of legal status for anyone they have reason to suspect might be in the country illegally.

"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act," Brewer said. "But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."

In recent years, this has been a frequent complaint of state lawmakers across a whole range of issues. When Washington has been unable to resolve pressing issues, states have rushed to fill the policy void. And it's not just immigration.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the federal government concentrated primarily on war and terrorism, with relatively little attention paid to domestic matters. That left plenty of running room for states to address a wide range of issues such as stem-cell research, securities regulation and minimum-wage increases.

Under Obama, that balance is starting to shift. He has clearly harbored ambitions of addressing nearly every major domestic issue. In many cases, that has meant calling on the states to implement policies he has pushed, in areas such as education and health care.

Given the continuing financial constraints states are facing, they have turned frequently to Washington for help. Obama has not been shy about exploiting that need, imposing new requirements on states to prod them to pursue his policies.

On other matters, though, the action clearly remains most vibrant in the states not just on immigration, but on other issues, such as climate change.

CHANGING THE RULES

Oklahoma Representative Randy Terrill, sponsor of that state's stringent 2007 immigration law, sees "no greater example of federalism in action of late than on the immigration front. It's always been states that have stepped into policy voids left by the federal government."

Since 2007, when the last major push on immigration failed in the U.S. Senate, states have enacted hundreds of laws, mostly aimed at making life less comfortable for illegal immigrants and those who hire them.

As Terrill suggests, taking ownership of an issue has become a familiar role for state lawmakers. That dynamic is just as evident when it comes to climate change.

The U.S. Senate has frequently served as the undertaker for global warming bills over the past decade. Its most recent effort suffered a near-death experience when the sole Republican co-sponsor pulled his support a couple of days before the bill's scheduled introduction in April.

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Its remaining sponsors are forging ahead, and climate change may yet be revived in this Congress (although even its supporters are not optimistic at this point). It's clear, however, that the Senate will not support a cap-and-trade regimen as ambitious as the one passed by the House last year or the cap-and-trade programs already in place in the Northeast or being planned among other regional consortiums of states.

"States have done an incredible job of working together," says California Senator Fran Pavley. "While Washington has been on hold, states have made many efforts to reduce energy use."

And even when Washington has acted, states have often provided the model. That's true of the vehicle gas mileage standards Obama imposed this spring, which were largely based on Pavley's pioneering 2002 law regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars. And it's certainly true of Obama's primary legislative accomplishment, the health care law that was patterned in large degree on earlier efforts in Massachusetts and other states. …