Legislative Success: State vs. Federal Government

As the federal government struggles to pass meaningful legislation, state and local governments are surging ahead, making progress on many of the bills that are getting stuck at the federal level.

According to a recent report composed by CQ Roll Call, Congress passed 352 of the 9,252 bills introduced in the 113th Congress, a pass rate of 4%. All 50 states had higher pass rates and there were only seven that had a 10% or below pass rate. 1

State Passed Introduced Rate
Minnesota 332 6,735 5%
New Jersey 516 8,392 6%
Pennsylvania 381 5,594 7%
Illinois 1,189 13,172 9%
South Carolina 341 3,793 9%
Iowa 301 3,012 10%
Massachusetts 695 6,972 10%

Comparatively, the states with the 7 highest pass rates were:

State Passed Introduced Rate
Maine 1,675 1,949 86%
Utah 535 757 71%
Colorado 525 711 74%
Idaho 429 624 69%
Louisiana 1,141 1,744 65%
North Dakota 567 920 62%
Arkansas 1,544 2,662 58%

In total, 9 states had pass rates above 50%. (All data via http://connectivity.cqrollcall.com/states-six-times-more-productive-than-congress/)

Frustrated with the lack of action from the federal government, many of the state legislatures are passing or introducing bills that have stalled in Congress. For example, after Congress failed to pass a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, 21 states plus Washington, D.C. opted to raise their own minimum wage in 2015.2 Even local governments are getting in on the action with Seattle raising their minimum wage to $15 per hour.

E-mail and electronic privacy is another topic ripe for action at the state level. While legislators in Congress are still optimistic about the passage of a bill, California is pushing forward on it’s own. This month State Senator Mark Leno proposed a similar bill that would “require that law enforcement officers obtain a warrant before accessing a person’s digital information, including emails and other data stored off the smartphone on remote servers or cloud services.”3

And just a few weeks ago, Congresswoman Janice Hahn announced that she would not be seeking re-election to Congress in 2016 and instead would pursue a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She pointed to a lack of progress in Washington and the ability for her to be more effective at the local level as primary reasons for her decision. She explains, “The problem is, Washington is broken. It’s increasingly mired in political gridlock, and there’s virtually zero cooperation between the two parties…That’s not the kind of government I grew up with…. I can do more for the Los Angeles region on the Board of Supervisors.”4

But why is it that the states are more effective? I decided to take a stab at it. Please bear in mind that this is not a scientific study – just someone interested in the topic having some fun exploring ideas and numbers.

My first thought was that maybe they have less partisanship, that maybe their legislatures are heavily one party or their majority and governors are of the same party. So I took a look at the top 5 states:

State Rate Senate House Governor
Maine 86% Republican (57.1%) Democrat (50.6%) Republican
Utah 71% Republican (82.7%) Republican (84%) Republican
Colorado 74% Republican (51.4%) Democrat (52.3%) Democrat
Idaho 69% Republican (80%) Republican (80%) Republican
Louisiana 65% Republican (66.7%) Republican (57.2%) Republican

Data via each legislature or chamber’s Wikipedia pages

While there isn’t clear evidence to suggest that less partisanship is the reason for these states’ success, there are a few things that stand out to me. First, three out of the five states are completely controlled by one party and interestingly, they all happen to be the Republican party. Though not definitive evidence that a single party government is more effective, it is an interesting pattern. A few other interesting things I noticed were that all five states have Republican controlled senates and all but one have a Republican governor. There may not be any significance behind this but again, I thought it was an interesting trend.

Another possible explanation could be that with a smaller population to please, each representative would be subject to fewer opinions and discrepancies on a particular issue. Again, I took a look at the top 5 states as a quick sample:

State Population (2010) Population per senator (2010) Population per representative (2010)
Maine 1,328,361 37,953 8,682
Utah 2,763,885 95,306 36,852
Colorado 5,029,196 143,691 77,372
Idaho 1,567,582 44,788 22,394
Louisiana 4,533,372 116,240 43,175

Data via http://ballotpedia.org/Population_represented_by_state_legislators

Looking at all 50 states, the smallest population represented by a state senator is 14,310 in North Dakota and the smallest represented by a house representative is 3,291 in New Hampshire. California has the largest in both chambers with a population of 931,349 represented by a senator and 465,674 by a house representative.

We see a completely different story at the federal level. The Constitution states that no representative should serve for more than 30,000 people. Since then, however, Congress has set the number of members in the House of Representatives fixed at 435 and adjusts the apportionment to each state as their populations change. This means that in order for one state to gain a representative, another state has to lose one. Because of this, as of 2010, the average house member represents close to 710,000 people.5 And as we all know, each state has two Senators that represent the entire population. This shows, as expected, that each state legislator represents significantly fewer people and are therefore subject to significantly fewer dissenting opinions.

In 2012, CNN’s Brian Flynn made a similar argument saying that Congress’s low approval rating was due to the fact that it no longer truly represents the people. Because the representation is so skewed, Congress becomes more susceptible to special interest groups, meaning “members and even candidates continue to reflect the more partisan positions of the party, regardless of the will of the people.” He furthers this saying, “[a]lthough roughly 40% of Americans describe themselves as independent, Washington continues to be driven by the right- and left-wing believers who form the base of each of the parties, resulting in acrimony and stalemate.”6 He argues that we increase the number of representatives, using a more realistic ratio of one representative for every 100,000 people, increasing the size of the Congress to close to 3,000 members.

Again, this is not necessarily a cause for the increased effectiveness of states. California, as the state with the highest constituents per representative, is not the least effective nor is New Hampshire or North Dakota among the states with the highest bill passage rates. It is an interesting piece of data though and could provide some understanding for the states’ success where the federal government has failed.

Max Behlke of the National Conference of State Legislatures, however, points to a different reason. He says, “States don’t have the flexibility to kick the can down the road. They have balanced budget amendments and things they actually have to address.”7 Whatever the reason, all of this leads me to believe that at least for now, the states are where the real magic happens. While we can’t point to an obvious cause for this success, it seems clear that if you want something to get done, it’s best to go through the state or local government.

1 Justice, Glen. (2015, January 27). States Six Times More Productive Than Congress. CQ Roll Call. Retrieved from http://connectivity.cqrollcall.com/states-six-times-more-productive-than-congress/
2 Kasperkevic, J. and Srinivas, S. (2015, January 1). Forget Congress, these US states raised the minimum wage on their own. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jan/01/forget-congress-states-raise-minimum-wage-2015
3 McGreevy, P. (2015, February 8). Tech firms back new bill requiring warrants for laptop, smartphone data. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-tech-firms-back-new-bill-requiring-warrants-for-laptop-cellphone-data-20150206-story.html
4 Merl, Jean. (2015, February 18). Rep. Janice Hahn announces run for L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/countygovernment/la-me-0218-janice-hahn-20150218-story.html
5 Proportional Representation. (n.d.) History, Art, & Archives: The United States House of Representatives. Retrieved from http://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Proportional-Representation/
6 Flynn, B. (2012, March 9). What’s wrong with Congress? It’s not big enough. CNN Opinion. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/09/opinion/flynn-expand-congress/
7 Justice.

Featured image via California State Capitol. (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_State_Capitol