June 2, 2010

New States

I got a Hawaii quarter yesterday during a routine transaction.  It occurred to me that the fiftieth state was admitted into the Union in 1959.  For more than fifty years, there hasn't been another new state admitted.  Looking back over American history, though, it appears that new states were coming in all the time throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But after we filled in the contiguous states in the continental mainland, in 1912, we pretty much stopped, and waited 48 years thereafter to admit Alaska and Hawaii.  Since then, no new states.

Now, we're kind of out of the territorial expansion business, which we were in through the mid-1800's, and it makes sense that statehood for newly-acquired territories would lag somewhat behind getting the dirt within our borders.  But this is only a rough concept, not borne out in reality -- compare Oklahoma, acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 but not organized as a state until 1907, with California, formally acquired after the war with Mexico in 1848 and admitted as a state in 1850.

The issues affecting statehood then were related to territorial acquisition but also related to migration (in turn a function of economic opportunity) and the politics of race and slavery.  By the time we had mostly put those issues behind us, the Cold War and the need to project military power drove admitting Alaska and Hawaii.  No new internal political dynamic, however, seems to be driving a need to create new states either out of old ones or out of other extracontinental territories controlled by the U.S.

What we might see, though, is a re-creation of existing states.  Simmering under the surface of our current political and economic turmoil is a debate about the role of the government in the life of the individual, and within that, the relative roles of the federal and state governments.  There has been considerable blurring between the two -- consider, for instance, the Federal Departments of Education and Transportation, which significantly underwrite a lot of activity that an originalist understanding of the Constitution would have identified as clearly state-level governance, and do so with little controversy.  We also see states balking at poor Federal enforcement of, most recently, immigration laws, or state-level decisions wagging the federal law enforcement dog when it comes to things like marijuana.

The role of the states is not immutable in our Constitutional scheme.  In 1868, the power relationship between each and every one of the states on the one hand and the Federal government on the other hand was fundamentally altered with enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Since then, we've seen the incorporation doctrine and the New Deal interpretation of the Commerce Clause push hard on the limits of what both levels of government can and cannot do; the national government has mostly expanded its power while the states have mostly had to share.

And now, the states are faced with massive mandates and significant revenue shortfalls, and they cannot deficit-spend the way the Federal government can.  It could be that we simply cannot afford to have state governments like we used to, that some radical ways of thinking about how those services will be provided will be imposed upon us by a combination of harsh economic necessity and shifts in political thinking.

I cynically think that most Americans these days are somewhat foggy on the difference between the state and federal government to begin with and have less appreciation for the benefits derived from a federalized system of government.  They are concerned with ends rather than means, results rather than processes.  After all, partisans on either side of our political spectrum seem to have little problem with unifying, streamlining, and generally nationalizing government so long as their party is the one in power when it happens -- had Barack Obama proposed creation of the Department of Homeland Security (something I can easily see him doing had he been faced with the challenges his predecessor did in 2001), conservatives might have howled about the massive aggregation of Federal power but liberals would have called it a sad necessity and chided their counterparts for wanting the country to be weak in the face of adversity.  In reality, of course, it was reversed.  Had George W. Bush proposed the healthcare reforms of 2010 (something I can easily see him doing, seeing as he was a major proponent of creating and enacting Medicare Part D), Democrats would have called it another conservative budget-buster and a great diminishment of personal freedom while conservatives would have praised it as a smart, timely, and useful example of "compassionate conservatism."  Again, reality was reversed.

But the point is that in both cases there was a consolidation of power at the federal level and there was little objection to any of it from a federalism point of view.  For the most part (and there were exceptions to this general rule), the political debate was driven by a search for a better result, not an appropriate process, and one's stance on the issue of the day was driven in large part by which party held the White House at the time.

So I don't see a reformation in the role played by states as opposed to the federal government as a particularly partisan issue.  And if we're going to change the way the various states do business, there is no particular reason I can think of to hold on to the old boundaries of the states other than a desire to maintain these accidents of history.  Many state boundaries are set by the existence of natural features, like the Continental Divide or important rivers.  Others were set because of population patterns that existed at the times of their admission and because of their location north or south of arbitrary lines drawn on maps in Washington to smooth over disagreements about slavery.  We hang on to them now because of historical inertia and affinity for sports teams.  Serious downsides of the existing states include substantial variances in population between them, creating an imbalance of representation in the Senate and creating tremendous inefficiencies in governing particularly the larger states and, conversely, significant revenue issues in the smaller ones.

We're headed down a political path which will leave us closer to a nation like France or the UK than a nation like Canada, one in which there is substantially less federalism.  That may be a bad thing and we may regret it, but it's happening one way or another.  If the trend is to go in that direction, then, we can at least aim ourselves at a result that makes more sense and gets us the results we want -- and maybe create a principled process along the way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There must be something in the water. I have been contemplating a post on this subject.