America’s Subnational Gov’ts and Confusion

There are both advantages and disadvantages of America’s many levels of subnational governments. Subnational governments allow for a more tailored approach to law in various geographic locations. Laws that are needed for snow removal or Amish buggies in PA are not really relevant in AL, for instance. It is very difficult to take one cookie-cutter approach and apply it to a land as vast as America, so most of the mundane and task-related laws being handled on a smaller scale has greatly benefited our country. 

Preservation of tradition, culture, and society is another advantage to smaller subnational governments.Certain land and areas should be preserved more than others and a subnational government can provide services according to specific needs. An agricultural area may reflect subnational services that protect farmland, restrict building,  and provide certain services to farmers or the community such as allowing firearms, hunting regulations, and permitted burning. An urban location may provide equal housing services, encourage building with subsidies, various social services, and yet not allow open burning or permit handguns in city limits. A community with a majority of catholic believers may find government services and tradition protecting and permitting religious parades or community events while also protecting the rights of those against birth control to receive medical services during pregnancy. These are very vague and probably unrealistic examples but they do present the point that subnational governments have access to addressing the more specific needs of people in a way that the federal government cannot provide in “blanket” laws.

Subnational governments also can enact laws that can be experimented on a smaller scale before being pushed up to a national level. It gives a more controlled environment to see what sort of effects will stem from political action and legislature prior to mass implementation.

While America is are set up as a federation with the People in charge of the national and subnational governments (retaining equal status and power), the reality seems to be that we are moving towards a unitary system of national government centralized and retaining more power over state governments. I feel even the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution enforces this viewpoint of a unitary system. As transportation and technology advance in America the vastness of our land shrinks and we become more unified. It is natural for our governmental system to line up with those advances.

This highlights one disadvantage of many subnational governments: conflict. The laws are different within each government, each jurisdiction, each state and county even. Laws in many places will conflict laws in others. In PA we can carry a firearm with a permit and DE will recognize that permit. However MD will not so if we go visit my husband’s father in DE with a handgun and carrying permit (which we don’t) and we plan to cross through MD to get there (which we do) we would be operating illegally in MD and a routine traffic stop could expose that. So in a tri-state area like I live in it is important to always remember that each government has a different requirement. This is not convenient for many reasons and as we all have heard “ignorance of the law is no excuse” but to sort through each state’s own guidelines on every subject can be impossible. 

Confusion is another drawback during elections and voter awareness/participation. I was really appalled to realize that state senators and US senators are NOT the same thing. How did I not know that? I’m still confused by the whole thing, honestly, and trying to figure out who I voted for and what I may have done unwittingly! Surely if I do not understand this there are others also confused. Aside from this there is confusion regarding concurrent powers such as taxes, courts, law enforcement, etc. Concurrent powers make it very simple to “pass the buck” around rather than having any one government assume responsibility and fix problems. I believe this is one cause of a lot of red tape.

 Our founding fathers set up the subnational governments and representatives with the specific intention of maintaining that constituents remain a priority. It is for this reason that they felt the US House of Representative members should have much shorter terms than US Senators. The thinking was that in order to properly represent a people constantly multiplying and changing, and to prevent tyranny, it was necessary to impose shorter terms on those closest to the people. The same can be said in regard to term limits. The changes in offices held by members does allow a more fluid representation of constituents. 

In all honesty, I feel that the US has too many subnational levels. I think that a Federal and a State level with an expanded state bureaucracy would suffice. Municipal, townships, boroughs, etc.do create confusion and disadvantages for citizens. It influences where people live (tax rates), what the quality of life and poverty rate is (cost of living), and feeds the sociological conflict theory of an elite society run by elites for the elites while keeping others down. There are too many jobs being repeated across these subnational governments and I believe tax dollars could be stretched a lot further if there was a more centralized approach.

Term limits seem to have more solid disadvantages due to the statistics which reflect that limits do not increase diversity or experienced legislators. Without experience or institutional memory legislators turn to relying on lobbyists which typically provide only one solidly bias perspective. While the Federal government has many agencies and committees filled with experts along with nearly unlimited funding, states do not have that advantage on the same scale. Without the funding and expertise being provided to state senators and legislators there may be a real advantage in a long-term post. A long term post would allow expertise and knowledge to be gained steadily over the course of years since there is no central committee to continually educate each new member of the house. 

In our modern world it is not reasonable to expect any person to give up his/her career for a two year term with no guarantee of re-election and includes a term limit. Income is no longer earned by primarily farming and providing for our own individual/familial needs. Most people work and rely on a paycheck to purchase the goods that are needed, and the longer an employee works for a company or in a profession the higher their income. So term limits provide quite a wall of opposition which prevents many qualified candidates from wanting to run for office.

One of the disadvantages to term limits is the creation of safe seats which are created through gerrymandering laws. There are things that can be done to remedy this without term limits. What I propose, is not strictly a “yes or no” to term limits but rather an expertly equated term limit that is longer than 8 years but less than 20. I’m sure there is a nice round number in there that brings the best advantages of both arguments into balance. Diversity, fresh perspective, seasoned members, educated members, institutional memory, accountability to constituents without too much focus on campaigning, etc. 

References

American Federalism, American Government 2e, OpenStax, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, 2 ed., 2019, ch.3.

State and Local Government, American Government 2e, OpenStax, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, 2 ed., 2019, ch.14.

Madison, James. Federalist No. 53. The Federalist Papers. “The Same Subject Continued: The House of Representatives.” New York Packet, NY (1788).

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