Opinion

The Circus is Great, But Watch the States

Some of the most important work and most important elections have migrated to the states

While the circus around the presidential election has been engrossing, state legislatures are doing the work that Congress once did. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

If you are reading Roll Call, let’s assume you’re a political junkie. You know all about delegate math. You understand how contested conventions work and you know exactly when and where each state will pick its delegates, just so that you can be ready in case a dogfight breaks out.  And who doesn’t love a dogfight?

But do you know if the attorney general in your state has a primary challenger? Is your state legislature in session this week? Or this year? Do you even know your state representative’s name?

I know who my state rep is, but I am embarrassed to admit that I did not remember who my state senator is until I sat down to write this column.  It turns out his wife is a friend from high school — who knew? Not me.

I confess my ignorance because I’m as guilty as anybody of what’s becoming a dangerous habit in American political life — becoming so engrossed in the chaos consuming the presidential race that we largely ignore the fact that some of the most important work, and therefore some of the most important elections, has migrated to the states.

As Washington calcified with partisanship and dysfunction over the last 10 years, the legislation that used to be the sole purview of Congress fell more and more to individual states to decide. Big, sweeping issues like immigration, criminal justice and civil rights used to occupy a year behind the scenes of the House and four weeks of floor time in the Senate. But those matters rarely get decided in Washington anymore. Instead, the Senate stands in recess, House members head home to campaign or fundraise, and state reps with small staffs and day jobs are voting on clean air, guns and whether and how to legalize marijuana.

Add a wildly entertaining presidential campaign on top of a Congress not doing a lot and it's easy for the most voracious political animals to get distracted from what's really important and where it's happening these days.

When Sen. Ted Cruz launched his never-subtle presidential bid at Liberty University in March 2015, Utah’s state legislature was wrapping up a session when legislators increased the gas tax by a nickel, expanded housing discrimination regulations to include LGBT language, and re-instituted the firing squad as a backup method for execution. Did you miss the firing squad bill? You were probably watching the media debate whether Donald Trump would really run for president this time, since he had just launched his exploratory committee promising to “Make America Great Again,” which sounded catchy even then.  

Fast forward a year, and the dynamic still holds. Between the time Marco Rubio mused whether or not Trump might have tinkled on himself during a debate and the night Trump mean-tweeted Heidi Cruz, the Georgia General Assembly passed a religious freedom bill that the governor vetoed, as well as a bill allowing guns on college campuses, including daycare centers on campuses, which he’s still thinking about. New York state legislators passed a paid family leave bill, South Carolina's House and Senate approved a registry for Syrian refugees, and Arizona lawmakers extended prison sentences for illegal immigrants.  Local representatives in Tennessee made the Bible the official state book, Florida reps banned “sanctuary cities,” and Mississippi and North Carolina lawmakers passed strict RFRA bills of their own, which both state's governors signed. 

The feverish pace in the states isn't unique to this year. The National Council of State Legislatures estimates that state legislatures passed roughly 42,000 bills, not including resolutions, in the two years that it took Congress to pass 352 bills and resolutions in the 113th  Congress. It probably depends on a person’s political persuasion to decide if it is a good thing or a bad thing for states to be passing so many laws, including laws that Congress once took the lead on, but it’s crucial to recognize that it’s happening nonetheless.

As tempting as it will be to game out which Senate seats would flip after a Trump nomination, or which party would control the House if Bernie comes from behind to overtake Hillary, remember that the real control belongs to the legislative chambers doing the work, writing the language, and passing the bills. Right now that’s happening in the states. 

So while you’re Googling “convention floor fight” and looking for a hotel room anywhere near Cleveland to get you close enough to the action of the Republican coup, remember to Google “Who is my state rep?”

Both answers will have an impact on what your life and your country look like in the future.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane. Follow her @1PatriciaMurphy.

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