A new proposal from Senator Kamala Harris requiring federal approval of state laws restricting abortion access captures how the unrelenting escalation of conflict between the parties is igniting fresh tensions between the federal government and the states.
More and more, both parties are seeking to use federal authority to block state initiatives they oppose, even as they routinely mobilize their power in the states to resist the other party’s agenda in Washington. Coalitions of conservative and liberal states now regularly sue to block federal maneuvers when the other party controls the White House.
“This has been a long-standing battle to use the feds to try and win political battles that don’t work at state capitals,” says Donald Kettl, a public-policy professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “That goes to civil rights and before. But this really is a new era of this. And the new era is sparked by the fact that there are large and growing differences between the states.”
The proposal from Harris, a California lawmaker and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, shows how that widening divergence in local policies can encourage more conflict between Washington and the states. Supporters of abortion rights have been outraged by the new wave of laws in Republican-controlled states severely limiting access to the procedure (as in Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi) or eliminating it altogether (as in Alabama). In other conservative states, restrictions are making it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate: Six states have only one clinic, and Missouri may soon become the first state since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision to have none at all.