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Bill Press: States show the way

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The next time you see a chicken with a smile on its face, thank California. And thank the great liberal Justice Louis Brandeis.

No wonder there are so many happy chickens these days. Responding to a ballot initiative approved in 2008 with 63 percent of the vote, the California legislature has enacted new restrictions on egg-production farms. Under the new rules, egg-laying hens are required to have at least 116 square inches of space each, up from 67 square inches, which is now the case in so-called “battery” cages. 

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For caged hens, that’s good news. For the first time ever, they’re able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and even flap their wings. It’s still a hell of a life, but now, it’s a little more tolerable. And not just for California chickens: The law also requires that all eggs sold in California must come from equally well-treated, and equally happy, chickens in any other state.

For both liberals and conservatives, California’s new egg rules are the latest practical application of the wisdom first expressed by Brandeis in his famous 1932 dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann. Disagreeing with the majority over the right of a state to require a license for selling ice, Brandeis fully embraced the spirit of the 10th Amendment: “that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Ever since then, states have proven themselves to be the “laboratories of democracy.” But never more so than today, when states are forced to take the lead on many critical issues — because Congress refuses to do so. 

That’s why President Obama went to Hartford, Conn., last week, and not to Capitol Hill, to talk about raising the minimum wage. As of January, 21 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a minimum wage higher than the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. But Congress won’t act, simply because Republicans, who gladly raised the minimum wage under George W. Bush, won’t do so under Barack Obama.

Congress won’t act on marriage equality, either. Tea Party Republicans would rather serve their outmoded and misguided religious beliefs than the will of the majority of Americans. But states aren’t waiting. Already, 17 states have legalized same-sex marriage. And judges have recently struck down bans against gay marriage in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington state have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and other states are lining up to light up.

If only states could tackle climate change and immigration reform. That’s the rub, of course. There’s only so much states can do. Yet, even within their limits, on issue after issue, policy is being made, and change is taking place on the state level first, before the national level. If you want to get something done today, don’t ask Congress. Ask a governor.

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.