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OPINION

Let border states’ lawmakers take the lead

By DANIELLE ALLEN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 25, 2019

The genius of American political institutions is a system of representation that taps into local knowledge from across our expansive federal system and delivers it to a national legislature for use in deliberations about the common good. The foolishness of American politics is to forget this feature of our institutions. The solution to the border security debate lies here, in this mechanism of federalism.

The country as a whole can debate the kind and level of security it wants. Together we can settle on some general directions. According to a Hill-HarrisX Daily Poll conducted Jan. 12-13, most Americans — 87 percent — favor increasing border security.

But as to how to secure the border, in alignment with that vision, we ought to give special deference to representatives from border states.

People who live in and represent the border states know the terrain, the property claims that would be affected by eminent domain, the results of previous administrations’ experiments with border security, the pressure points and concerns of local residents, the difference between what happens at ports of entry and what happens elsewhere, and the impact of the current situation on the populations most affected — their constituencies.

When we move from the question of whether we should generally increase border security to more specific questions about how to do it, clear regional differences of perspective emerge. The voters most likely to think that President Donald Trump should declare a national emergency and build a wall without congressional approval live in the Northeast. To be precise, 37 percent share this opinion in the region farthest from the southern border. In the Midwest, the figure is 34 percent; it falls to 25 percent in the West.

In that same mid-January poll, the pattern shows up again on the question of whether we need a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. A little more than half of voters in the Northeast favored such an approach; it was 48 percent in the Midwest and 41 percent in the West.

Local opinion isn’t always right, especially when it runs in the direction of restricting constitutional rights for fellow citizens or human rights for those who are not citizens. But the fact that the highest level of support for a border wall can be found at the farthest remove should give everyone pause, including the president.

East Coast billionaires, whether on the right or left, should be duly respectful of the expertise brought to the table by our border-state representatives.

There is a great deal of diverse, bipartisan talent in districts at or near the border; we might think of those border-district legislators as forming an ad hoc committee for us on this issue. California: Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D; and Kamala Harris, D; Reps. Mike Levin, D; Duncan Hunter, R; Juan Vargas, D; Scott Peters, D; and Susan Davis, D. Arizona: Sens. Martha McSally, R; and Kyrsten Sinema, D; Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D; Raúl Grijalva, D; Tom O’Halleran, D; and Paul Gosar, R. Texas: Sens. Ted Cruz, R; and John Cornyn, R; Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D; Veronica Escobar, D; Will Hurd, R; Henry Cuellar, D; and Filemon Vela, D. And New Mexico: Sens. Martin Heinrich, D; and Tom Udall, D; Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D.

If we the people were an early English monarch, we could — just as kings once treated jurors — throw these legislators into a wooden horse-drawn carriage and ride them over rough roads, denying them food and water, until they come to consensus on the best approach to border security.

But we are not an early English monarch. We are civilized, decent and mutually respectful 21st-century American citizens, or so we would like to think. We might therefore suggest that these people lock themselves without cameras into a Capitol hearing room with a plentiful supply of pizza, water and coffee until they can walk out with a solution.

We will thank the president, and the rest of the Washington-New York corridor elite, not to get in their way (we’ll hold the officeholders among them accountable at the voting booth if they do). We would be grateful if these border-state representatives bring their expertise about their local situation to bear on helping us address our national concerns. We will cheer an end to the treatment of federal workers as pawns. We will cheer a government that starts working again and a legislative branch that takes its proper leadership position on a vital national issue.

Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University.

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