According to Gallup, only 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. This lack of faith in the government is evident in voter turnout: In the 2014 election, only 36.3 percent of eligible voters came out to vote, the lowest turnout rate since 1942. The anti-establishment candidates in the 2016 presidential race, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, owe some of their success to distrust in the current political system. At the root of all this cynicism is a lack of faith in the government’s ability to get things done. With a Congress defined by partisan gridlock, which seems to produce only political showmanship, filibusters, and government shutdowns, it makes sense that Americans are not happy. Seemingly commonsense policy reforms that a majority of Americans approve of — such as infrastructure spending and criminal justice reform — are somehow unable to garner enough legislative support to pass both houses. More generally, congressional output has been dismally low: In the past two sessions, federal lawmakers passed only 284 and 296 bills, the lowest and second-lowest amounts on record.
In the context of federal inaction, it’s easy to lose faith in the American system of government. And yet, considerable progress is in fact being made, but at the state level. In addition to more publicized state measures such as health care reform and marriage equality, state legislatures have quietly been developing innovative policy and passing governmental reforms in lesser-known areas where the national government has failed to act, including transportation and criminal justice. Although limited to the state borders in which they are passed, these state-led efforts demonstrate that government can, in fact, make some progress in this political climate.
Legislative initiatives in transportation policy, for instance, offer a good example of state activity in areas of legislative gridlock. In Congress, lawmakers have consistently refused to raise the controversial gas tax; Congress has not increased the federal gas tax for an astounding 22 years, in part because of a peculiar aversion to supporting any tax increase. As a result of inflation, the tax revenue has depreciated by about a third of its original value and Congress has had to replace the declining revenue with hasty bonds that offer no long-term solution. The government has neglected our national infrastructure, with one in three American roads in need of repair and one in four bridges working overcapacity or in need of repair.
Luckily, state legislatures across the nation have been raising the gas tax over the past few years, hoping to meet a need where Congress has failed to act. Just this past year, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington increased their state gas taxes. Notice that these policies passed in some predominantly Republican states as well, demonstrating that the issue need not be partisan. And, contrary to the claims of members of Congress, voting for the tax increase had few consequences for state legislators: A recent analysis by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that voting for a gas tax increase had no harmful effect on reelection. These increases will give states critical transportation funding that the federal government has failed to provide. The gas tax increase in South Dakota, for example, will give the state an additional $40.5 million towards infrastructure.
Some states have found ways other than gas tax increases to address the poor condition of their infrastructure such as new fees and taxes on vehicles and other forms of transportation, as well as transportation investment bond programs. In total, at least 24 states have increased investments in transportation since 2012. Evidently, states have learned to fill the void of common sense and bipartisan policy where Congress fails to act. As Washington Representative Judy Clibborn, a member of the Washington House Transportation Committee, commented, “We cannot wait indefinitely for support from the federal government.” Similarly, lawmakers in South Dakota mentioned that they increased transportation funding because the condition of roads and bridges was starting to become an issue of public safety.
Another area of recent state-level activity has been in criminal justice reform. Behind all the talk at the federal level of a need for justice reform, states have been working to increase judicial discretion and cut down or eliminate mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes. Going all the way back to 2000, a total of 29 states have passed such efforts. As a result, these states have saved millions in expenses from incarceration and even closed several prisons entirely. As more reforms go into effect and as existing policies start to measurably reduce the prison population and prison expenses, benefits and savings will only increase in the future. In Congress, meanwhile, justice reform has only recently been introduced in the Senate and has yet to be introduced in the House. Coincidentally, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, one of the supporters of the current senate bill, led the push for justice reform in the North Carolina House in 2011, when he served as the state house speaker. Evidently in this case, initial state progress is even inspiring national efforts.
As reassuring as these state efforts may be, it is important not to ignore the severity of Congress’s inability to act. Because for every great, innovative policy that one state passes, there are likely an equal number of states not doing anything at all. Federal involvement may be necessary to get more regressive states to adopt smart policy solutions to pressing problems. With minimum sentencing laws, for example, there are still a whopping 21 states that have failed to reform existing policies. Even in some of the states that have made efforts in reforming justice policy, the measures were not entirely comprehensive. Similarly with transportation, fewer than half of the states have not prioritized increasing transportation funding. As such, we shouldn’t rely entirely on the states alone to make legislative progress — the national government is still essential to cover these policy areas where certain states may not take initiative.
At some point, the federal government will have to act to make policies such as infrastructure funding and criminal justice reform universal. But in the meantime, states have begun to pick up the tab by adopting many of the measures Congress has failed to pass. As gridlocked and unproductive as the American system of government may be at the moment, at least one function — the state government — is making some progress.