The New Federalism

Politics / by Josh Braun /

Is the United States government unburdening itself of the big science issues and handing those responsibilities to individual states?

From the DEC/JAN 2006 issue of Seed:

Every year kids across the U.S. open their civics textbooks and learn one of the cardinal rules of American politics: Democrats are for a stronger, more powerful federal government, while Republicans insist on a leaner one and support states’ rights. But in the past five years, Republicans have set about shattering this distinction, passing a litany of bills from No Child Left Behind to the Patriot Act, that have expanded the power of a rightist and growing federal government.

There is, however, an exception to this paradigm shift. “I think it’s clear that on certain pivotal issues in science and medicine, the Bush administration is using the rhetoric of states’ rights,” says Dr. Glenn McGee, director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. “In effect, what is happening is the lawyers for the Bush administration have determined that the easiest way to deal with controversial problems in these areas is not to deal with them.”

Pundits have insinuated that the federal government’s tendency to avoid the issue of embryonic stem-cell research is a maneuver aimed at handing expensive, unwieldy and ethically tricky science-funding issues to industry and individual states.

“I think it’s a meeting of two political minds,” says Joanna Weinberg, a professor of law policy and ethics at the University of California-San Francisco researching the ethical and policy implications of the stem-cell research initiative passed by California voters. “There’s the very clear right-to-life orientation of this particular administration and its unwillingness to engage in much debate about that. [Additionally,] one of the hallmarks of this administration—and most Republican administrations—is that there should be less power held by the federal government and that the federal government should defer to the states in regulating activities unless absolutely necessary. It’s two interests that are coming together very opportunely.”

Whether the reservations of the Bush administration or individual members of Congress have to do with a pro-life stance, a predilection for smaller government or both, it is clear that the synergy between agendas is likely to thwart new federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in the near future. Now, Democrats find themselves in support of an unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable idea: They’re calling for more states’ rights.

“It’s been argued that we’re seeing the emergence, for the first time since the Kennedy administration, of a kind of federalism embraced by populists because they themselves see advantages in a federalist structure,” says McGee. “If you have no influence on federal policy, but can make a difference at the state level, the state level may be a better option.”

Indeed, in the past two years, a rash of stem-cell legislation has swept U.S. statehouses from coast to coast. Earlier this year, the New York Academy of Sciences went so far as to hold a national conference on state stem- cell funding, entitled “The New Federalism.” Competing models have even been drawn up, with California installing a miniaturized version of the National Institutes of Health to administer grants, while states like New Jersey and New York have passed or proposed more traditional funding schemes and free-market incentives for research.

The California Example
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was created in 2005 by California Proposition 71, is the earliest and, by far, the most ambitious attempt, both in scale and in dollars, to invigorate embryonic stem cell research at the state level. Scientists as well as legislators from around the country are watching anxiously to see whether it will succeed.

Prop. 71, ambitiously titled the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act,” started off auspiciously, passing by a luxurious margin in the 2004 election with 59% of the vote. The bill creates a right to stem cell research in the state constitution. And it establishes the CIRM, a nonprofit corporation, which is intended to function in much the same way as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), distributing $3 billion in grants over 10 years, while allowing California researchers, used to dealing with NIH, to do business with a largely familiar system. But almost immediately upon passage, pro-life organizations challenged the bill on legal technicalities, throwing it into gridlock.

“My take on these challenges is that they are delays, not the death of the program,” says Hans Keirstead, a prominent stem cell researcher at the University of California Irvine, who consulted on the creation of Prop. 71 and later campaigned for the bill. “The tenets upon which they’re based are absurd. It amazes me that a group can slow down something that has the potential to treat so many. The CIRM is an outstanding institute that provides tremendous accountability and responsibility to its charge.”

The state legislature, also apparently uneasy about the amount of independent authority given to the CIRM, recently introduced a bill that would increase oversight of the institute. But legislators insist they are fine-tuning the original proposition, not reversing course.

Regardless of what happens in court or in the legislature, the CIRM is likely to survive in some fashion. The Institute has named its first round of grantees, despite its inability to procure bonds in the midst of the ongoing court battles.

Meanwhile, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey have also put forward funding for embryonic stem cell research, and other states are on their heels with more legislation. It’s bound to result in some fascinating research.

“You throw $3 billion at a problem in science and stuff happens,” says Keirstead, adding, “I think it’s an admirable path for the states to take. But I don’t think that state initiatives should ever compensate for deficits in federal policy. Although the CIRM is a wonderful solution for California scientists, it’s not for many scientists in the United States. The federal policy has got to be addressed.”

The most frightening possibility for the states is that the federal government could enact a law prohibiting embryonic stem-cell research altogether in the U.S.

In the meantime, says McGee, “If the administration is this savvy about how to move things to the states, I think you just have to go ahead and anticipate that playbook.”

Originally published January 19, 2006

Tags democracy economics governance law politics

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