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Progressives Don't Need Washington All That Much

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Republican takeover of the Senate majority really shouldn't matter much to progressives. Even when Democrats have the majority, precious little gets done in a body that lets a minority of members obstruct.

But never mind. A modern, future-oriented agenda has been advancing on the state level -- as progressive governors rush into the vacuum of inaction left by Washington. And its supporters are not just Democrats but also independents and Republicans who respect mainstream science and regard the working poor as something more than cheap labor.

Thus, we see victories for universal health coverage, higher minimum wages, the fight against global warming, slowing the war on drugs, and gay marriage. And with little thanks to Capitol Hill.

Massachusetts has run a universal health care system for about eight years. Its plan was based on a conservative blueprint pushed through by a Republican governor, but when it surfaced as the model for the Affordable Care Act, the right disowned it.

Two important points: Massachusetts showed it could guarantee coverage while maintaining one of the nation's strongest economies. And even without Obamacare, other states would have followed its example.

Obamacare's biggest flaw is its complexity, largely the result of expensive giveaways to the medical industry. But now another progressive state, Vermont, is seeking a waiver to address that flaw with a modified single-payer plan. If Vermont's approach cuts the state's medical spending by 25 percent without hurting quality of care as a Harvard study predicts, other states will do likewise.

Cap and trade reduces emissions of planet-warming gases by creating a market for them. It was another conservative idea, but when Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency proposed such a system, the Republican Congress turned on it.

California shrugged and created its own. At least 10 states have since adopted their own cap-and-trade programs.

Sacramento has long been the capital of American environmental policy. In 2004, California set fuel economy standards higher than Washington's. Soon other states embraced them, and before you knew it, 40 percent of the U.S. car market was under the California rules.

That left automakers with two choices: Build all cars to the tighter specifications or challenge California's right to set them. They decided to challenge, running to the George W. Bush administration for relief, which they got.

But in 2008, California and 14 other states successfully sued the EPA for turning down California's request to set stricter emissions. Now when Washington talks about changing the fuel economy standards, the automakers want California at the table.

Hostility toward modern science and unwillingness to pay for it have slowed funding for U.S. research, but not in future-minded states. When Bush sharply restricted federal support of embryonic stem cell research on religious grounds, Californians voted to spend $3 billion of their own money on it. Connecticut and others responded with their programs, serving humankind and also building up cutting-edge industries employing thousands of their residents.

As Washington state and Colorado allow the sale of recreational marijuana, other states are sure to follow, as Oregon just did. The tax money will be welcome, of course, and so will be the savings from not having to arrest and imprison millions of nonviolent drug users.

Washington state has also led the charge for raising the minimum wage. That campaign is now spreading to other states. Lawmakers in D.C., meanwhile, remain dedicated to defending the depressed federal minimum.

Gay marriage. In the beginning, there was Massachusetts. Massachusetts proved to the rest of the country that the sky did not fall as a result of legal same-sex marriage. Now it's widespread.

Progressives, ask yourselves, "What good is flowing from Washington these days?" Almost nothing at all is flowing from Washington, so go around it and do your thing.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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