WASHINGTON – If you thought Congress couldn’t get anything done before, just wait until January.
Gridlock is once again the word in Washington, which is set to have a Democrat-led House and GOP-majority Senate for the first time since the Reagan administration. The Gipper and then-Speaker Tip O’Neill famously cut a number of deals, but more recent iterations of divided government – particularly over the past decade and a half – have been less productive.
It may feel like divided government is becoming more common, what with the frequent and sharp swings in the past four midterm elections, but it’s not. This decade will end with seven years of Republicans and Democrats sharing power, similar to the eight years in the 1990s, nine in the 1980s, and seven in the 1970s. Within most Americans’ lifetimes, only the 2000s saw one party or the other hold total sway for at least half the decade (4.5 years for the GOP with George W. Bush, and one for Democrats with Barack Obama).
Still, Republicans and Democrats have found it difficult to pass legislation of much consequence during recent periods of shared power, and a triumvirate of Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell isn’t much more promising. Granted, deliberate and limited lawmaking is a blessed feature, not a bug, of our system. But America does have some problems in need of solutions.
To get to those solutions, it would help to stop seeking them at the federal level. Another feature of our system is a large and crucial role for state governments. We should take advantage of it.
I am admittedly biased here, and not only because I run a think tank dedicated to policy-making at the state level. This past week I was in Washington to help promote the idea that the states are best-suited to reform our broken health-care system. Or “systems,” I should say, since each state’s market for health care is different.
That fact, along with the inherently personal nature of health care, is why there will never be one comprehensive health-care law that suits all 325 million Americans. Obamacare, and the failed efforts to repeal and/or replace it, demonstrate as much. We should stop pretending otherwise.
Now, there probably isn’t one comprehensive health-care law that would suit all 10.5 million Georgians at once, either. But I would trust Georgia’s elected officials a lot more to get it right, or at least to properly empower local authorities to do so, than the best and brightest gathered in D.C.
At the very least, the Georgian officials would only be trying to sort out what’s best in Atlanta, and its suburbs, and north Georgia, and southwest Georgia, and southeast Georgia, and all the other parts of Georgia – and not also try to figure out what would work in northern California, and southern California, and inland California, and coastal California … and then in the Florida Panhandle, and central Florida, and Naples, and Miami, and –
I think you get the picture.
Federal tax dollars will almost certainly continue to finance health care in a big way for years to come. But – aside from the fact those tax dollars originate in the states – the restrictions that come with those dollars don’t just ensure a great deal of waste in the system. They block many patients from the care they actually need, and exasperate medical professionals who just want to provide that care. States need the autonomy to spend that money more wisely.
Leaving it to Washington to go on pretending it can manage a sector that’s one-sixth of the U.S. economy will not only mean continued waste, lack of access and exasperation. It will mean health care remains subject to the ever more quickly shifting tides of our politics, and even a cause of those shifts: If 325 million Americans aren’t all going to like any particular health law, half of them are going to be mad at the other party for imposing it on them. And the half that liked it will live in fear of having it taken away.
This is no way to run a country. Our Founders recognized as much, and left most lawmaking power to the states. Their old wisdom would work well in the new year.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Contact him through the group’s website at www.georgiapolicy.org.