Every 100 years, the states have risen to change the course of American history. Are we overdue?

Every 100 years, Americans have risen up through governments "close to home" to rescue a republic under siege. In 1787, they sent delegates to Philadelphia to dissolve the Continental Congress and create "a more perfect union." In 1860, their regiments marched to Antietam and Gettysburg to test that union and whether a house divided between the "land of the free" and black slavery could endure.

For well over a century, the people have watched as Washington has greatly expanded its size and reach. The national government has rewarded their confidence, having fought and won two world wars, stirred an economy that has grown 40-fold in the last half-century, and legitimized a social revolution that has toppled established stereotypes and prejudices.

But the storm clouds gathering over Washington do not bode well for the changes Americans asked for in November. Beneath the Republicans’ stoic faces, will a silenced minority circle the wagons to protect an intransigent leader still committed to “victory" in Iraq? Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “100 hours agenda” promises a fresh start, can senior Democrats ignore the perks of office they’ve been denied for a decade? "New Congress, Old Gridlock" takes a closer look at the winds gusting inside the beltway.

Our Federalism

Federalism is one of the Republic's enduring political principles. Madison and the other delegates at the Convention recognized that effective self-government rests on a dynamic partnership between a "General Government" and "subordinate governments [who] retain their due authority and activity." The successful transformation of a largely agrarian and rural society into an industrial metropolis; and its evolution from a collection of local communities to a unified national society—set within a global community—reflects the wisdom of their design.

The difference between the two kinds of government, the one national, the other local, lay in the tasks assigned to each. William Pound, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, discusses this partnership in this week's Q&A.

Historically, state governments have been at their best resolving issues related to education, criminal justice, and human services. The national government has taken to overseeing defense, foreign relations, and interstate commerce and services. Federalism has also encouraged local government units to become laboratories for political experimentation. The states have increasingly proved their mettle in legislation covering areas such as universal healthcare, minimum wage, and the environment.  California, for example, is mounting a charge on all three fronts.

Yet, as political power and financial clout have gravitated to Washington, important policies relating to energy, immigration, and job creation have been held hostage to partisan majorities and special interests. This disequilibria has fueled a decline in legislative ethics, a military-industrial complex that has stoked a $9 trillion national debt, entitlements that have long-since breached their original intent, and a professional political class locked in a permanent campaign cycle, beholden to those who fund it.

As Pound notes, "checks and balances" are usually thought of in terms of the three branches of government. But as our history suggests, federalism plays a much larger role in the self-correcting model that the Framers created. It represents a reservoir of political authority, at the ready, to restore a troubled political partnership.

Time will tell whether Washington can deliver on its promises. And, what role the states will play if they don't.