"What's striking to me," says state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle, "is how much of what goes on in the state legislature mirrors what happens in Congress."
Kohl-Welles's words were themselves striking because she spoke a day after last week's 5 to 4 Supreme Court rulings shifting power away from the federal government and toward the states. The court restricted citizens' right to sue their states for violating federal laws.
This made no sense to Justice David Souter. He called the decisions "indefensible" and said "the principle that `no man is above the law' -- which applies to the president of the United States as well as the lowliest public servant -- should apply equally to the states."
Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, suggesting the court was granting state governments the divine right of kings. He cast the majority's thinking as "more akin to the thought of James I than to the thought of James Madison."
As Kohl-Welles's comments show, the court is reviving old states' rights doctrines at a moment when our politics, economy and social life are more nationalized than ever. Kohl-Welles was in town for meetings organized by the Center for Policy Alternatives, a group whose purpose underscores the increasingly interlocking nature of federal and state politics.
The center brings together progressive Democrats and moderate Republicans from state legislatures around the country to share ideas, experiences and proposals. The center has its conservative counterparts promoting their own agendas across state lines.
To listen to Kohl-Welles and to state representative Miguel Wise, who was also here for the center's meetings and represents a district in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, is to understand the difficulty of drawing sharp jurisdictional lines around problems that are national in scope.
State legislatures, like Congress, are arguing about patients' bills of rights to regulate health maintenance organizations; education reforms to improve school standards; gun laws; and the new economic inequalities created by a new economy.
Wise's district, for example, has a 17 percent unemployment rate. Its residents look at the reports of a booming national economy, he says, and ask, "Where's the money? Why isn't it coming down here?"
Kohl-Welles, who like Wise is a Democrat, represents a booming district. But she worries about "the huge, growing gap between eastern rural Washington and the Puget Sound." Rural economic development is a priority in Washington as it is in Texas. The economically troubled rural areas of Texas and Washington have more in common with each other in these matters than they do with other parts of their own states.
And if you ask Wise where most of the help for his district has come from, he'll list the federal government's empowerment zone program first, because of its investment of job training money.
John Freeman, a consultant to the center and a former state legislator in Michigan, sees similarities among urban areas coping with the transition away from manufacturing.
"You've got a lot of older cities whose economies have changed underneath them," he says. "You have a tax base which has been gutted, which leads to poorer schools." Is this only a local problem? Isn't it a national problem created by global economic changes far beyond the control of city and state governments?
If you wonder whether advocates of states' rights really mean what they say, just ask them what they'll do during next year's crucial campaigns for the country's state legislatures. In seven states, party control of the lower house will change hands if as few as six seats switch from one party to the other. Control of 10 state senates hangs on a shift of only three seats.
Will national parties and political action committees keep their hands off these elections in deference to their intense respect for states' rights? Not a chance. Huge sums will flow across state lines.
No one with any sense would suggest administering the whole country from Washington. It's clear that state governments can encourage innovation by serving as those famous "laboratories of democracy."
But there is a disingenuous quality to many of the states' rights arguments you're hearing these days. We are a nation of states, but also a nation. Even those who argue the loudest for states' rights act as nationalists when their pet issues -- for example, tort reform, abortion or local library policies on Internet porn -- are at stake. So don't just listen to what states' rights advocates say. Watch what they do.