Editorials & Opinion: Sunday, November 14, 2004
Back to the future: How 13 superstates can restore the Founders' vision
By Hugh D. Spitzer
Special to The Times
Since the Nov. 2 election, home computers (and editorial pages) have been bombarded with despairing e-mails from residents of "blue" states. Many write about emigrating to Canada. Some in the Pacific Northwest have suggested that Washington and Oregon rejoin British Columbia, from which they have been separated since 1846.
One map circulating on the Web shows New England and the Middle Atlantic states comprising a nation called "New America," the upper Midwest in a country called "Mini Willinois," and the western strip along the Pacific Ocean denominated "Baja Canada." But it isn't time to give up on the United States of America. Sure, our regions differ culturally and politically from one another. Yes, we're politically polarized. But perhaps we should look at things in a more positive light, put on our thinking caps, and figure out a way to accept our differences and live with them.
One solution — instead of dissolution — would be to return to something closer to the Founders' original idea in 1787: 13 self-gov-erning, sovereign states with distinct histories and cultures, joined together for self-defense and economic prosperity.
The people who drafted the United States Constitution envisioned something along the lines of what the European Union is becoming today: independent entities with a joint foreign policy, collective defense, a common market, freedom of movement and basic human-rights guarantees.
Let's consider going "back to the future," reconfiguring America as 13 new "superstates" that correspond to distinct regions with distinct values and priorities.
The borders of these regions could be drawn in many ways. To be true to the real cultural differences, many states would properly be split: west-east in the case of Washington and Oregon, north-south in the case of Ohio, following the "blue-red" divide we witnessed in the recent election.
But for the sake of simplicity, imagine the existing states joining as superstates that generally follow that blue-red split. The new 13 regions would be something along the lines of what is shown on the accompanying map.
For example, Washington and Oregon would become "Cascadia," the states from Minnesota to Ohio would be the "Great Lakes" superstate, and Florida and Puerto Rico would come together as "Florico" to reflect their bilingual, bicultural heritage.
New England would stay just what it has always been: New England. California, the world's fifth-largest economy, would remain as independent as always, and the same would go for Texas, Alaska and Hawaii, each of which is so different that it could not conceivably be combined with anything else!
Social, health and education programs would be shifted entirely to these superstates, and the federal government would go back to the limited government that James Madison described in Federalist Paper No. 45. We would not dissolve the United States, but we would dissolve the vast national government that grew in response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, the security crisis of the 1940s and '50s, and the moral crisis of the 1960s.
Here's why this makes sense:
• Almost everyone agrees that the federal government is too big and too distant. Washington, D.C., is many miles and time zones away from all but those on the Eastern Seaboard. The national bureaucracy is incapable of responding with agility to any challenge — not just because of its size, but because political positions and pressures are so diverse that every action must be a carefully calibrated compromise.
• The country itself is just too large. Few people have had the opportunity to meet and chat with the president — in sharp contrast with countries like Sweden, Costa Rica, Kenya and New Zealand, where the average citizen stands a good chance of running into the prime minister on the street and giving him or her a piece of mind. Furthermore, because of our size and internal polarization, presidential candidates become rigid puppets, mouthing platitudes, afraid that acting like real human beings might lose some cluster of voters.
• Because of America's vast diversity of values, attempts at a common social policy stand a good chance of failure. So why not let the superstates make their own priorities? If one region wants to beef up health care, another education, and a third facilitate same-sex marriage, so much the better. Americans would still be free to move anywhere within the country if they don't like the social direction of their superstate.
• In an increasingly globalized world economy and with the expansion of worldwide regulatory mechanisms like the World Trade Organization, the individual's control over his or her life will be diminished unless we nurture local institutions, close to home.
• We might be able to accomplish all this through the existing states. But there are too many of them, and most are too small in either size or population. The second-tier governments in the United States should be larger — like provinces in Canada — to counterbalance the size and influence of the federal government as well as international agencies. Further, because of huge transportation improvements over the past 200 years, travel and communication within a modern superstate would be much faster and easier than it was within any state in 1787 (except perhaps Rhode Island).
Our new American superstates should handle the tasks the Founders would never have thought a national government should control: social policy, social welfare, pensions, public health and safety, transportation. The national government would focus on its original job: foreign policy, national defense, interstate commerce and management of federal lands.
We would keep the State Department, the Defense Department and Interior. Commerce, Labor and Agriculture would be combined. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve and other economic regulatory bodies would stay in place. National labor and job-safety laws would remain in effect. The Environmental Protection Agency could be merged into Interior, focusing solely on cross-border environmental problems such as air and water pollution.
At the same time, the federal courts would continue to enforce economic regulations and laws against interstate criminal activity, as well as handling disputes between residents of different superstates.
But some of the more recent federal departments — Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation and Homeland Security — would go the way of the dinosaurs.
The 13 superstates would keep the jobs that the Founders entrusted to the original 13 states: transportation (except air travel and interstate highways), education, health care, social services and public works. Who, in the nation's first 200 years, would ever have thought that the federal government would intrude into education?
Furthermore, if one superstate decided to spend its resources on, say, medical research (like California's voter-approved stem-cell-finance initiative) and another focused on mass transportation, the diverse experiments would yield more useful models than the federal one-size-fits-all approach.
This change would require a constitutional amendment. While we are at it, we should consider companion adjustments. To promote democracy, the U.S. Senate should be restructured so that less-populous regions like the "PrarieLand" superstate do not have more than their fair share of senators. Echoing the European Union's new "digressive proportionality" system of allocating seats in the European Parliament, each superstate should have a minimum of two senators, but the more-populous superstates could be assigned as many as four or five. The U.S. House of Representatives would continue to be apportioned on a pure population basis, and we would continue to have a president.
The superstates would enact new constitutions and would be free to establish the details of their governance: whether to have one house or two in the legislatures, whether to have many or a few elected officials, or even whether to experiment with parliamentary systems.
The national finance system would need revision to prevent the limited federal government from maintaining today's level of revenue and depriving the superstates of resources needed to carry out their chosen social programs. Perhaps the Constitution should cap federal revenues at a percentage of the gross national product, and the balanced budget amendment is a must. A single-subject rule for legislation should be added to prevent pork-barrel politics.
The Bill of Rights would remain in place, and there would be no cutback on the civil-rights gains of the past five decades. As in Europe and Canada, fundamental human rights must be guaranteed through the larger political and economic community. The federal courts would continue to enforce the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment's protections. But, as is the case today with the individual states, our superstates could provide additional rights on top of the national lowest common denominator.
This modest proposal refers back to the Founders' original idea of keeping most governmental functions close to home. If one regional superstate is more socially conservative than another, so what, as long as basic rights are protected? If California wants to experiment with a complete health system based on Kaiser Permanente, so much the better. If New Englanders gradually become more and more different from those who live in the "SouthLand," vive la difference!
We don't need to throw in the towel on the United States. We can just go back to the way the Founders meant it to be in the first place.
Hugh D. Spitzer is a Seattle attorney who teaches state constitutional law at the University of Washington School of Law.