What Biden should do to get things done: Delegate to the states

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Joe Biden is president and his party narrowly controls the House and the Senate. But that doesn’t mean the Democrats will be able to push through whatever federal policies they want. To do more and effect greater change, President Biden should do two things: use his decades of legislative experience to build consensus in Congress and, when consensus isn’t possible, seek to delegate authority to cities and states. 

Democratic majorities in both chambers include many centrists. The filibuster will be hard to reform. And even procedural issues in the Senate are complex. Agreement will still be hard to come by.

Delegation expands the space for agreement. Even when Congress and Biden cannot agree on a single federal policy, they might agree on a federal policy of delegation that allows for 50 (or more) different policies to reflect the varied interests in our diverse nation. On issues without federal agreement, Biden can achieve success in working to change where policy change occurs, rather than what policy change occurs. 

For example, one of the more contentious national issues is immigration. The Constitution grants the federal government control over immigration but leaves its regulation to Congress. Although Biden is likely to propose comprehensive immigration reform, we have seen in the past how difficult it is to get reforms through both the House and the Senate. What might a delegated policy of immigration look like? Imagine that Congress allocated each state a state-specific number of visas each year. Each state could choose how many of those visas to grant within its borders. Unused visas from states declining increased immigrant populations could be acquired by other states that were interested in attracting more foreign students, families and workers.

Another contentious issue is climate change. Many advocate federal regulation and federal subsidies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Again, getting comprehensive climate policy through the House and Senate may not work. There is no reason, however, that the states cannot decide to take the lead on these policies; indeed, many states and cities already have their own climate change policies. The federal government could serve as supporter rather than coercer, offering information and expertise to states and localities who want it.

Imagine Biden soliciting from each member of Congress, regardless of party, their ideas for national policies to delegate rather than national laws to implement. Such a solicitation could uncover new agreements not otherwise visible.

Many progressives might not like decentralizing authority. They believe the federal government is best positioned to tackle many national and international problems. But, in practice, to make policy at the federal level requires 51, if not 60, votes in the Senate and, given the diversity of the country, national policy change will always require compromise. Progressive values can be more closely attained in more homogeneous states and localities. 

Many conservatives, too, might not like decentralizing authority. Policy implemented in one state always has consequences for those living in others. Just as with progressives, however, conservative values can be more closely attained in smaller geographies with more homogeneous interests.

An advantage to federalism, for all parties, is that it makes possible “laboratories of democracy.” When states or localities try laws not politically possible at the federal level and those policies are successful, proponents then have evidence to persuade and spread that policy to other jurisdictions. Rather than a high-stakes, all-or-nothing, contentious effort to build a policy coalition at the federal level through hypothetical arguments about what might be, federalism allows one to try things out locally and make arguments on the experience of how things work in practice.

But the biggest benefit to delegating federal authority is that it might calm American politics. When a single public policy is set at the federal level for all of the United States, the national elections that determine control of government become incredibly high stakes. These stakes lead to contentiousness, divisive rhetoric, uncompromising partisans, challenges to the legitimacy of elections, and, as we saw on Jan. 6, even political violence. If more decisions were made in 50 state capitols instead of Washington, the stakes of decisions at the federal level, and thus contentiousness of national electoral competition, would be lowered.

Delegating authority to states and localities will not end political disagreement, of course. Politics is the process through which we come to contested social decisions. Citizens can disagree with state government decisions, just as with federal. But letting politics play out differently in different places allows policy to reflect the incredible diversity of the United States more accurately and represents an opportunity for the Biden administration to get more done. 

Seth J. Hill is an associate professor of political science at the University of California San Diego who studies how citizens motivate politician behavior. Follow him on Twitter @seth_j_hill.

Tags biden administration Joe Biden Public policy state and local governments

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