Thursday, April 1, 2010

What's the Matter with Kansas?

I’m very proud to be from Kansas. That’s often hard to do, especially during these times when the State is routinely held up as an example of a place of moderate pragmatism gone horribly wrong. But every time we make some progress in rehabilitating the image of our state, the legislature takes us back a step or three.

The latest mechanism for this is a “non-binding” resolution (SCR 1615) which, in the words of the resolution, is “serving notice to the federal government to cease and desist certain mandates” and “providing that certain federal legislation be prohibited or repealed.” The resolution itself is a series of complaints regarding federal conflicts with state’s rights (maybe I’m wrong, but I could have sworn we fought a civil war over this) and a few hyperbolic statements asking the federal government to “cease and desist” from doing things that are unconstitutional (again, I could be wrong, but I thought that was in the job description of the Supreme Court).

So far, the resolution sounds merely like a less erudite version of George Will’s high school civics class. And you still can’t figure out why the resolution was written in the first place. But the next to last paragraph gives it all away. “Be it further resolved: That all compulsory federal legislation which directs states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties or sanctions or requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding be prohibited or repealed.”

That is to say, it’s all about the money.

I can understand the intent behind the resolution. Legislators don’t want to be forced to fund things they disagree with simply because of a federal requirement. For what it’s worth, this is not a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative thing…in the “paid professional liberal” world of public health, we hated the “unfunded mandate” as much as anyone. So, for example, when the comprehensive federal funding for the Medicaid expansion within health care reform runs out and the sentiment (or budget) in Kansas favors limiting Medicaid eligibility, the state does not want to be required to spend more dollars against their will. (Either that, or they wish their Senators had cut as good a deal as did Sen. Nelson of Nebraska in the first version of the bill.)

But the resolution goes way beyond the issue of funding. It strikes at the very heart of what it means to be part of a federal system, of a United States. The resolution asks the federal government to respect the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights regarding the powers reserved to the states, while conveniently ignoring the previous seven articles of the Constitution. The fact is that we live in a representative democracy, where the majority rules. That means that small states such as Kansas have to accept the decisions of the majority, even when we disagree with it. And to be honest, a small state such as Kansas with only four representatives in Congress and two Senators from the minority party is not going to fare well in these times. But that’s the system we have and, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, while democracy may not be the best form of government nobody has come up with anything better.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is at play here as well. Supporters will focus on the issue of the unfunded mandate, and it’s clear that efforts to expand health care with state mandates is, in large part, the origin of this bill. But there has been little thought given to what the resolution really means. It apples to all federal legislation without exception. Kansas Democrats (aka “moderate Republicans” on either coast), who often are forced to be shrill just to be heard above the roar, are absolutely right to point out that this puts in jeopardy provisions designed to enforce federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Surely nobody wants a return to those days, but the resolution specifically requests that such legislation which enforces compliance by individual states be prohibited.

The resolution contains a certain element of hypocrisy as well. The resolution wants all laws that link federal funding to specific requirements repealed. It’s not that Kansas doesn't want the federal money; they just want the cash on its own terms (as, I suspect, so do 49 other states). And yet none of them, Kansas included, are willing to trade absolute sovereignty for being cut off from the federal trough. Nobody is willing to decline all Medicaid funds, all highway dollars, all cash for environmental and health programs. Politically and practically, it’s no viable to kill the golden goose. What apparently does work is to shout at the goose, with a voice that gets harsher as it drifts farther and farther away. After all, when the raft is drifting farther from the ship of state, one has to yell louder to be heard.

Fortunately, a non-binding resolution is simply that. Copies will be waved about, there will be a modicum of grandstanding, and the papers will quietly gather dust in a corner of the State Archives. So I’m not sure why I’m so troubled by it. Perhaps I feel the pain of this resolution because I know many of the people involved in the debate. While there are unquestionably one-issue crazies out there, most of the people in the Kansas Senate are essentially good people who want to do good things. In order to respond to an angry conservative electorate in a Republican primary (where, to be frank, most state legislature races are decided in the Sunflower State), they have to sign onto this kind of bill simply to stay in place and prevent the true ideologues from running the show. Knowing them as I do, I doubt that many of them are happy about it. (I’d like to think that the bill, which was originally intended as an amendment to the state constitution of Kansas, was turned into a non-binding resolution by these moderates of conscience.) The fact that good people of character are forced to support such a concept is perhaps the saddest part of this whole story.

To paraphrase Thomas Frank, that’s what’s the matter with Kansas.

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