Washington State Senator Phil Rockefeller may not devote his weekends to analyzing his relationship with his Beltway counterparts, but he gave PT a few ideas for how to make it better.PT: We've heard a lot about a "disconnect" between the federal government and their state counterparts. Would you agree with that characterization?
Senator Rockefeller: I think you're focusing structurally on the balance of power, and the states don't necessarily view it that way. State legislators don't wake up in the morning, thinking, "How are we going to influence the federal government? How are we going regain power?"
We're really driven to address the needs of our own constituencies, and in so doing we are implicitly asserting our right as representatives of the state government to respond to problems in our own jurisdictions.
Failure to do that leads to an atrophy of state roles and initiatives and that can lead to a federal response. When pressures build up at the national level for action, I think in many ways the interplay between the federal government as "uber-partner" and the individual states is driven by how much initiative states show in dealing with the problems their real-world constituencies are facing.
PT: There's a wide spectrum of motivation then?
Rockefeller: Yes, the states are really just a test bed for major solutions. We have 50 states allowing for demonstration and experimentation.
An example would be how states are taking action on climate change—the move towards alternative energy, capping greenhouse gas emissions and the push for more efficient automobiles. A lot of the impetus for this is centered at the local and state level. Here is a case where people have been crying out and saying to the federal government that these issues are of national or international importance to our security and economic independence, and the states are taking more initiative than the feds are.
PT: If the states need their federal partners to act on these types of issues, how can they reassert their authority to change the dynamic?
Rockefeller: In part we have to address the accumulation of power over the past century or so. When the states move to reassert their power, they do find that there's this prior history that you have to take into account and prior patterns of the delegation of exercising authority, and you have to deal with it and integrate it in some way.
I think we're going to have to be far more sophisticated about engaging in collaborative behavior, pulling together the best of what is available at the federal and state level. We have to use shared values and goals and then use an integrative model to reestablish the roles of who does what through negotiation.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
Senator Phil Rockefeller represents Kitsap County and Washington's 23rd Senate District.