08/20/2013 05:44 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

Energy Reform Starts Outside the Beltway

We're a nation whose people believe in democracy. The American Revolution was the first great democratic revolution, and even it followed centuries of struggle for more broadly shared political rights. And the proud tradition of American Politics is the extension of those political rights throughout society -- to former slaves, to women, to groups denied the basic rights of civil society. That's who we are, all of us.

But sometimes the institutions of democracy malfunction. They cannot respond to the needs of the citizens. It's as if the water in a stream were obstructed and couldn't reach the people downriver. They are thirsty and needy, but the stream is dammed. The water has to get there by another route.

When the legislature of California was jammed up by partisanship and ill-will and super-majority requirements, the stream that is democracy found a route around Sacramento. The route of direct democracy -- of propositions -- has been much derided around the country, but as the antidote to a political stalemate, it became the alternative course for our democratic expression. Although far less efficient than the representative democracy intended for our state-house, the propositions eventually covered most of the major social issues of the day, and the current governor even turned to a proposition as the only way to raise tax rates.

The stream of national legislation is now similarly blocked. The prospect of getting fundamental energy policy reform -- however necessary and however popular -- out of the Congress of the United States over the next three years has to be considered remote. The same pressures of partisanship, ill-will, and super-majority requirements stand in our path, and if California is any example, the logjam won't break any time soon.

But where can the stream of democracy flow? We don't have direct democracy in the Constitution of the United States. That's not an option. But where there is no federal option, the states themselves are. State legislatures can pass energy legislation. States can organize together without Washington, D.C. The centuries-old stream that is democracy can run around our capital, can run circles around our capital. California has advanced energy laws. So do other states. Isn't it time to coordinate those laws, to fulfill the will and needs of the people? Governors and state legislatures can lead and can consolidate.

Let's give Congress a few more years to work on itself. In the meantime, its limitations need not be our limitations. Let the waters of democracy roll again. The Congress of the United States can catch up downstream.