The Problem of Legislative Localism

Josh Barro doesn’t like wind energy production tax credits, but despite his generally free market ideology Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad loves them. By coincidence Iowa is a windy place with lots of open land for wind turbines. Localism is not particular to Iowa, but Barro argues that the state in question has too long abused its privileged position in the primary process and should be stripped of its statehood. Reihan Salam retorts that Barro’s home Borough of Queens has too long stymied congestion pricing in New York City and should likewise be abolished.

Coincidentally, earlier this morning I was reading a more systematic proposal from Xavier Marquez that might address this issue. For fussy reasons, I think it’s probably best re-explained without the reference to John Rawls and the “veil of ignorance” and I’ll just say the basic idea is that legislators could be randomly assigned to new constituencies when they have to run for re-election.

One interesting element of this idea is that it preserves a fair amount of what’s good about having legislators represent specific geographical areas. When you face your new constituency, you’ll want to make the case to them that one of the things you’re good at is listening to your constituents and understanding the particular problems they face. But at the same time, you wouldn’t want to do what politicians all-too-often do today and betray their good faith understanding of the broad public interest for the sake of some idiosyncratic local interest. What you’d try to take advantage of is that though a legislator can have an opinion on all kinds of subjects, in practice he can only be working on a handfull of issues at a time. So if you’re assigned to Iowa, you want to make sure you’re focusing on some issues with particular resonance in Iowa. But you don’t want to adopt policy positions that are only justifiable in narrow Iowa terms. I’m pretty comfortable defending wind subsidies on the merits, so I’d have no problem carrying Iowa’s water on that and then taking the case to wherever I’m sent next. And obviously for the duration of that term I’d have to set my pet interest in urban policy issues aside. But I wouldn’t be actually changing my views. And if Iowans called me up demanding corn subsidies, I’d have to tell them that I understand where they’re coming from but they need to understand that I can only afford to help them in ways that have some plausible broader public justification.