Competitive Federalism Today


Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was established in 1980 by a woman whose thirteen-year-old daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. The organization lobbied state legislators to raise the drinking age and impose tougher penalties, but without success. States with lower drinking ages had an economic interest in maintaining them because they lured youths from neighboring states with restricted consumption laws. So MADD decided to redirect its lobbying efforts at Congress, hoping to find sympathetic representatives willing to take action. In 1984, the federal government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA), a crosscutting mandate that gradually reduced federal highway grant money to any state that failed to increase the legal age for alcohol purchase and possession to twenty-one. After losing a legal battle against the NMDAA, all states were in compliance by 1988.South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987).

By creating two institutional access points—the federal and state governments—the U.S. federal system enables interest groups such as MADD to strategize about how best to achieve their policy objectives. The term venue shopping refers to a strategy in which interest groups select the level and branch of government (legislature, judiciary, or executive) they calculate will be most advantageous for them.Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. If one institutional venue proves unreceptive to an advocacy group’s policy goal, as state legislators were to MADD, the group will attempt to steer its issue to a more responsive venue.

The strategy anti-abortion advocates have used in recent years is another example of venue shopping. In their attempts to limit abortion rights in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision making abortion legal nationwide, anti-abortion advocates initially targeted Congress in hopes of obtaining restrictive legislation.Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Lack of progress at the national level prompted them to shift their focus to state legislators, where their advocacy efforts have been more successful. By 2015, for example, thirty-eight states required some form of parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion, forty-six states allowed individual health-care providers to refuse to participate in abortions, and thirty-two states prohibited the use of public funds to carry out an abortion except when the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. While 31 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age resided in one of the thirteen states that had passed restrictive abortion laws in 2000, by 2013, about 56 percent of such women resided in one of the twenty-seven states where abortion is restricted.Elizabeth Nash et al. 2013. “Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: 2013 State Policy Review.” (June 24, 2015).