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Divided government: Washington is closing, states are moving in opposite directions

Conservative Republicans in our nation's capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when tea partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011. They've basically shut down Congress. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform.

It's as if an entire branch of the federal government -- the branch that's supposed to deal directly with the nation's problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law -- has gone out of business, leaving behind only a so-called "sequester" that's cutting deeper and deeper into education, infrastructure, programs for the nation's poor, and national defense.

The window of opportunity for the president to get anything done is closing rapidly. Even in less partisan times, new initiatives rarely occur after the first year of a second term, when a president inexorably slides toward lame-duck status.

But the nation's work doesn't stop even if Washington does. By default, more and more of it is shifting to the states, which are far less gridlocked than Washington. Last November's elections resulted in one-party control of both the legislatures and governor's offices in all but 13 states -- the most single-party dominance in decades.

This means many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. It's as if we're seceding from each other without going through all the trouble of a civil war.

Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, for example, now controls both legislative chambers and the governor's office for the first time in more than two decades. The legislative session that recently ended resulted in a tax hike on top earners, to be used for early-childhood education and state universities. Minnesota also legalized same-sex marriage and expanded the power of trade unions to organize.

On the other hand, Kansas is about to shift taxes away from the wealthy and onto the middle class and poor by reducing the state's income tax and substituting a higher sales tax. And North Carolina millionaires are on the verge of saving at least $12,500 a year from a pending income-tax cut even as sales taxes are raised on services that lower-income residents depend on.

Gay marriages are now recognized in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington state permit the sale of marijuana. California is expanding a pilot program to allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions. Guns are harder to buy in New York and Connecticut.

But other states are heading in the opposite direction. They're enacting laws restricting access to abortions so tightly as to arguably violate the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In Alabama, the mandated waiting period for an abortion is longer than it is for buying a gun. Meanwhile, some states are expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, while others are refusing to.

The states are even diverging on immigration, filling the void left by Washington's inaction. If you're an undocumented young person, you're eligible for in-state tuition at public universities in 14 states. But you might want to avoid even driving through Arizona, where state police are allowed to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect is here illegally.

Federalism is as old as the Republic, but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on such central issues affecting Americans.

Some might say this is a good thing. It allows more of us to live under governments and laws we approve of. And it encourages experimentation: Better to learn that a policy doesn't work at the state level than after it's harmed the entire nation. As the jurist Louis Brandeis once said, our states are laboratories of democracy.

But the trend raises three troubling issues.

First, it leads to a race to the bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy can become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of "one nation" means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.

Second, it doesn't take account of spillovers. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one state is likely to move to another state where job opportunities are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.

Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century, "states' rights" has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists.

A great nation requires a great, or at least functional, national government. The tea partiers and other government-haters who have caused Washington to all but close because they refuse to compromise are threatening all that we aspire to be together.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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