Reconciliation Bill Makes the Case for Federalism

Bernie Sanders answering press questions. 

Looking to cement his legacy as a transformational president, President Joe Biden has poured most of his legislative priorities into one omnibus spending bill known as the “Build Back Better” plan. Initially proposed with a whopping $3.5 trillion price tag, progressive Democrats have had to compromise with the more moderate faction of their caucus, whittling the bill down to a “meager” $1.75 trillion framework.

Democrats hold a three seat majority in the House, and with Independent Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine caucusing with the Democrats, the Senate is essentially split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie. Since it is eligible to be passed in the Senate under reconciliation, Republicans cannot block a vote with the filibuster, enabling Senate Democrats to pass the measure with a simple majority and no Republican support.While Democrats work to craft a passable bill, considerable negotiating effort has been spent attempting to bridge the gap between progressive and moderate members of the Democratic Caucus. Such negotiations highlight the virtue of an overlooked yet fundamental principle of American government: federalism. In a country of more than 330 million people, it is nearly impossible to arrive at policy considerations that are acceptable to a broad swath of Americans, and it often feels impossible to create consensus between the national representatives of the American people. Such struggles are a feature of the American system, not a bug. House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) summed up House progressives’ attitudes towards the Build Back Better plan when asked about the state of negotiations: “there is too much at stake for working families and our communities to settle for something that can be later misunderstood, amended or abandoned altogether.” 

I do not doubt that communities in Representative Jayapal’s district care deeply about the elements of Build Back Better. After all, they ostensibly elected her to represent their interests. Fortunately, the American system already consists of governing bodies that legislate issues of concern to particular communities, namely the states. Members of communities elect legislators who are intimately aware of their concerns and who rule not in Washington, but in their own backyards. Negotiations do not take place between legislators representing vastly different economies nearly unrecognizable to one another but between those representing neighboring counties. This is not to suggest that all states are homogenous, but there is certainly more homogeneity within states than between them. State legislators are empowered to institute programs desired by the citizens within their jurisdictions. If citizens do not like the laws and programs of their state, they can move to another state that has not instituted such laws or programs. 

The Constitution of the United States is a remarkable document that requires major decisions to take place at the most local level possible. It grants specific powers and jurisdictions to the federal government, leaving other powers to states and municipalities. Under the American system, if the community members from Representative Jayapal’s district want 12 weeks of paid family leave, they can elect state legislators and a governor who would institute such a plan, drawing taxes from and bestowing benefits upon those who support the proposal. If citizens living in Senator Manchin’s state of West Virginia do not want the same plans that Representative Jayapal’s constituents do, they are under no obligation to institute such plans. 

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was criticized for opposing health care regulation at the federal level that he supported at the state level while governor of Massachusetts. Far from contradictory, Romney’s position demonstrated an understanding of the beauty of the American federalist system. States do what the federal government cannot and should not do. Rather than ram life-altering legislation through a 50/50 senate, Democrat senators should return to their states and encourage their constituents to contact their city counselors, state legislators and governors. If citizens of Vermont want government subsidies for hearing, dental and vision care, there is no reason that they should demand Alabama citizens follow in their footsteps. Vermont’s government is perfectly competent enough to institute such subsidies at the state level.

Federalism allows for the needs of individuals and communities to be met by the legislators beholden to those individuals and communities. Instead of trying to negotiate a broad spending package acceptable to both New York and Nebraska, the federal government should allow each respective state to legislate themselves as it sees fit. Everyday life experience demonstrates that consensus is more easily arrived at among small groups than among large conglomerates. States and localities are better equipped to meet the needs of their citizens than 538 egotistic politicians in Washington, D.C. who represent economically and culturally diverse constituencies. If Biden wants to leave a positive legacy, he should praise the constitutional system rather than spend four years trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.