The Preamble of the United States Constitution includes the phrase “to form a more perfect union”. That phrase describes a struggle that has been ongoing since the Declaration of Independence was signed, sealed and delivered to the King of England. That struggle has involved Supreme Court cases and the most devastating war in American history. But the struggle is not just historical, not just something to read about in dusty history books, but something that goes on every day in this country…as real today as it was in the time of the Revolutionary War. And that ongoing struggle is most visible in the issue of States’ Rights vs. Federal Authority.
The Founding Fathers were divided on the issue of strong federal government. Some, like Hamilton, argued that their new country would not survive without strong central authority. Others agreed with Jefferson, believed that an overpowering centralized authority would be destructive to American’s individual freedoms and should be limited, with most power being reserved for the states. As with many issues of the day, a compromise was reached.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lists many specific powers that are “delegated” to the federal government, including declaring war and regulating commerce. It also specifies what states may not do, such as making a treaty with foreign nations and passing a bill of attainder. Article VI also specifies that the states cannot pass laws that conflict with the Constitution and that if there is a conflict, federal law prevails. However, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, designed to calm the fears of anti-federalists, says…The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Constitution and its Amendments, however, did not settle the issue of state’s rights. The issues outstanding led to many critical events in America’s history, including the Nullification Crisis and eventually the Civil War. Numerous Supreme Court cases were brought and decided involving states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment…and more Amendments to the Constitution were added to clarify the limits or extent of federal authority.
Politics of States’ Rights
It would be easy to claim that conservatives are for states’ rights and liberals are for big government. Prime examples are continued calls for secession by Republicans such as Rick Perry, oppressive immigration laws being passed by many states in defiance of federal authority over immigration issues, and calls by Democrats for increased federal social programs to help the millions of Americans devastated by the economic crisis of 2008. But things are not always so clear-cut as we would like to think, and headlines of the last ten years show us that the reality of politics can be quite complex when it comes to states’ rights versus federal authority.
For example, one of the largest expansions of federal power occurred under President George W. Bush. Most people are aware of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, which empowered the Federal government with unprecedented law-enforcement, intrusion and detainment policies. But the Bush/Cheney administration also implemented No Child Left Behind (an intrusion to traditional state authority over public education) and the Help America Vote Act (contrarily making it harder for Americans to vote all over the country) and the secret energy task force under Vice President Cheney which led to federal laws reduced the states’ authority over energy policy.
At the same time, liberals have used state laws to challenge and undermine federal authority and restrictions over areas such as same-sex marriage, stem-cell programs and health-care reform, attempting to increase personal liberties in the areas of gay-rights, science research, and access to medical care.
When the balance doesn’t work
Some people may think the issue of states’ rights and who has authority to do what is a pure academic exercise. But the Civil War is a prime example of how states’ rights can be carried to the extreme and result in a devastating event that affected millions of American lives. Civil rights is another area where states’ rights are used to try to limit the rights of one minority group or another and the federal government must often step in to keep the minority from being abused by the majority in a particular state.
A more recent example of dysfunction between the states and federal government is Hurricane Katrina. The confusion over authority both before and after the hurricane was devastating to the people of New Orleans and surrounding areas. It is the federal government’s duty to build and maintain dams, locks and levees. And FEMA is responsible for responding to the disasters. But budget cuts made in the interest of “reducing government” made these entities struggle to do their jobs. Then when emergency help was needed, the federal government waited and wondered whether they ought to be nationalizing the National Guard, or waiting for the states to do something. The results were tragic.
It seems that the Founding Fathers deliberately set up a confrontational position between the state governments and the federal government…probably in an effort to keep either one from becoming too powerful. Most of the time, the judicial branch of our government must get involved to resolve these conflicts between the governments. In the meantime, we continue to find new issues to fight over and rehash old issues ad nauseum. But as long as American citizens basically have dual citizenship, as an American citizen and as a citizen of their respective states, there will be discussions, arguments, and legal action over which entity has the authority to decide what rules we live by.