If it seems Congress is more fractured and less productive than other terms in recent history, that’s because it is. Congress has passed fewer laws than at any time since World War II, and the two parties are further apart than they’ve been since the 19th century.
Just because Congress is doing less, however, that doesn’t mean less is getting done. When policy challenges arise, they simply get addressed in other ways, including through the states. In the Massachusetts State House, as in state houses across the country, congressional inaction has increased the urgency for state-by-state solutions.
What has Massachusetts done?
Massachusetts has led the way in seeking state-based solutions to major national challenges.
■ In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, a stance that was extremely controversial at the time but which has since spread to 19 states across the country.
■ In 2006, the state passed a health reform law designed to ensure that all residents had insurance. That approach served as the basis for the Affordable Care Act.
■ In 2013, with the cost of health care spiraling upward all over the country, Massachusetts implemented a new cost control bill (whose effectiveness is still very much uncertain).
■ Just last week, Massachusetts committed to raising the minimum wage in stages to $11, the highest level in the nation.
Is Massachusetts the only state doing this?
Definitely not. Many other states have pursued local solutions to national concerns. New York, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Georgia have all been experimenting with new early education programs. And there’s been a raft of activity on gun control since the Newtown, Conn., shooting, when a concerted push for national compromise eventually fell apart.
Does it raise any concerns?
There’s a reason the United States has a federal government. Some kinds of problems are easier to solve in Washington than in 50 state capitals.
Take gun control. Massachusetts has some of the most stringent gun control laws in the nation, which makes it hard for criminals to purchase guns in the state. But the gun laws in New Hampshire and Maine are less restrictive. And since there are no checkpoints or border patrols between states, it’s relatively easy to purchase guns elsewhere and transport them to Massachusetts.
As a consequence, the majority of guns seized in Massachusetts in 2012 actually came from out of state.
If Congress passed a national gun control law, the situation would be quite different. To evade the law and find a more lax jurisdiction, you couldn’t just drive to the next state. You’d have to smuggle your guns through US customs.
Where does this leave us?
Massachusetts has a long history of taking on issues that the federal government isn’t addressing. We were among the first states to fully abolish slavery, and we passed the nation’s first minimum wage law in 1912.
What’s different now is the sheer scope of congressional inertia. As the activity of Congress has shrunk, the purview of state governance has expanded.
The Supreme Court justice and longtime Bostonian Louis Brandeis once argued that state action of this sort was one of the virtues of our political system. States, he wrote, could “serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments.”
Moving forward, if obstruction remains the order of things in Washington, our lab may get a lot busier.