Thursday, July 23, 2009

Getting Serious about States Rights

You hear more about "states rights" these days than you have in recent years, as some governors react to events in Washington (especially the stimulus package) that seem designed to obliterate what remnants of the federalist system remain. But it’s hard to get a handle on how seriously people take this.

Texas recently caused a stir, for instance, when leaders there suggested that they might secede from the union in response to what’s taking place in Washington. Resolutions passed in other, mostly Republican-controlled states (like secession-happy South Carolina) have vaguely asserting state sovereignty, hinting at nascent rebellion. And I have written in recent years about the rise of what I call "neo-federalism" -- an emerging assertiveness on the part of states, stemming not from the hyperactivity of the Obama administration but from the paralysis that is much more the rule in Washington.

As someone who believes in the federalist system established by the founders, and who cheers almost any sign of its resurgence, I've watched these developments with hope and interest. But I've reluctantly come to believe that much of the most recent states rights talk is mere posturing and saber-rattling, done for rhetorical effect only, to advance narrowly partisan ends -- which threatens to trivialize the serious constitutional issue of how power is apportioned in the country.

Both major parties cynically evoke it when it gives them tactical advantage in the skirmish at hand, but neither takes it seriously enough to apply in a consistent or coherent way.

Yesterday's fight in the U.S. Senate over an amendment designed to expand gun rights offered a good example of what I'm talking about. So blatant was the flip-flopping and position-switching on the issue that even the New York Times picked up on it:

"The debate forced senators to wrestle with issues of states rights, sometimes in ways that seemed to clash with the general philosophies of their parties. Many Republicans, who typically favor limiting the ability of the federal government to dictate to states on social issues, voted in this case to limit the ability of states to insist on their own rules for concealed weapons carried by people from other states . . ."

. . .Critics of the amendment argued that it would undermine state and local gun-control laws, and accused Republican supporters, typically staunch defenders of states’ rights, of hypocrisy.

In their floor speeches and in the lead-up to the vote, Republicans repeatedly sought to rebut that accusation by saying that gun carriers would still have to obey state and local laws."

Typically, the Times focused on Republican hypocrisy, but Democrats are guilty of it, too, since they normally are enthusiastic supporters of expanding Washington's power and control, over virtually every corner of the country, but in this case -- in a laughably cynical fashion -- took the position that the amendment in question would trample states' rights.

The arguments for moving the nation back in the direction of its federalist origins are compelling, in my view, even if the political obstacles to doing so are daunting. And I won't abandon my hopes for a neo-federalist revival, spurred by the desire of states to chart their own destinies and escape Washington's long shadow.

But that effort won't gain real traction as long as Republicans and Democrats continue to trivialize and play games with the issue, batting states rights around like a political beach ball.

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