A Definition of Federalism: The Case for Reinvigorating State's Rights

Texas State Capitol. Kumar Appaiah

There is an ongoing battle over what the proper size and role of the federal government is, especially as it relates to conflicts with state governments over legislative authority. Conservatives believe that state and local governments should be empowered to handle local issues such as healthcare, education, immigration, and many other social and economic laws. What is federalism, and why do conservatives value a return to a decentralized government?


Original Constitutional Roles

There is little question that the current role of the federal government far exceeds anything ever imagined by the founders and has clearly taken over many roles originally designated to individual states. The founding fathers, through the U.S. Constitution, sought to limit the possibility of a strong centralized government and in fact gave the federal government a very limited list of responsibilities. Simplified, the founders thought that the federal government should handle issues that it would be difficult or unreasonable for states to handle such as the maintenance of military and defense operations, negotiating with foreign countries, creating currency, and regulating commerce with foreign countries. Ideally, individual states would then handle all most matters that they reasonably could. The founders even went further in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights to prevent the federal government from grabbing too much power.

Benefits of Stronger State Governments

One of the clear benefits of a weaker federal government and stronger state governments is that the needs of each individual state are more easily managed. Alaska, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Florida are all very different states with very different needs, populations, and values.

A law that may make sense in New York might make little sense in Alabama. For example: Some states have determined it is necessary to prohibit the use of fireworks due to an environment that is highly susceptible to wild fires. Other states have no such problems and have laws that allow fireworks. It would not be valuable for the federal government to make one standardized law for all states prohibiting fireworks when only a handful of states need such a law in place. State control also empowers states to make tough decisions for their own well-being rather than hope that the federal government will see the states’ problem as a priority.

A strong state government also empowers citizens in two ways. First, state governments are far more responsive to the needs of the residents of their state. If important issues are not addressed, then voters can hold elections and vote in people they feel are better suited to handle the problems. However, if an issue is only important to one state and the federal government has authority over that issue, then they have little influence to get the change they seek as they are but a small part of a larger electorate. Second, empowered state governments also allow individuals to choose the state that best fit their own personal values.

Families and individuals are able to choose states that either have no or low income taxes, or states with higher ones. They can opt for states with weak or strong guns laws, with restrictions on marriage or without them, and so on. Some people may prefer to live in a state that offers a wide range of government programs and services, others may not. But just as the free market allows individuals to pick and choose products or services they like, so to can they choose a state that best fits their lifestyle. An over-reaching federal government limits this option.

Major State and Federal Government Conflicts

The conflicts between state and federal governments are becoming more common. As the federal government grows larger and begins imposing costly measures on states, states have begun to fight back.

While there are many examples of federal-state conflicts, these are a few key current ones.

With the passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, the federal government gave itself an incredible amount of power that inflicts burdensome regulations on individuals, corporations, and individual states. The passage of the law prompted 26 states to file a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law, and they argued that there were several thousand new laws that were nearly impossible to implement. The suit has since been accepted for review by the Supreme Court and a ruling is expected before the 2012 Presidential elections. While the federal government claims they have the authority to pass what acts as a doorway to nationalized healthcare, states are fighting back on the issue. Conservative lawmakers argue that states should have the most authority to determine laws regarding healthcare. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney passed a state-wide healthcare law when he was governor of Massachusetts that was not popular with conservatives. However, the bill was popular with the people of Massachusetts. While many states would not wish to implement the law he did, Romney argues that this is why state governments should have the power to implement laws that are right for their states.

Another major area of contention in the proper roles of government is with illegal immigration. Many border states such as Texas and Arizona have been on the front lines of illegal immigration. While there are currently tough federal laws dealing with illegal immigration, previous and current Republican and Democratic administrations have refused to enforce many of the laws. This has prompted a number of states to pass their own laws that battle the rise of illegal immigration in their own states. One such example is Arizona, which passed SB 1070, and was then sued by the Obama U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over certain provisions in the law. The state argues that their own laws mimic the laws of the federal government that are not being enforced.

Over the past several election cycles there have been many alleged instances of voting fraud found to have occurred during the voting process. There have been instances of votes being cast in the names of the recently deceased, allegations of double registrations, and absentee voter fraud. In many states you can simply show up to vote with any registered name and be allowed to vote, without proof. A number of states have sought to make it a requirement to show a government issued ID to vote, which has proven both logical and popular idea among voters. One such state is South Carolina, which passed legislation that would have required voters to present an official government-issued photo ID. The law doesn’t seem too unreasonable given that there are laws requiring ID’s for all sorts of things including driving, purchasing alcohol or tobacco, and flying on an airplane. But once again, the DOJ interfered and prevented South Carolina from enacting the law.

  •    Health Care

  •    Illegal Immigration

  •    Voter ID Laws

Current Goal of Conservatives

It remains highly unlikely that the largess of the federal government will return to the role that was originally intended. Ayn Rand once noted that it took over 100 years for the federal government to get as large as it has, and reversing the trend would also take as long a time. However, conservatives must argue the necessity of reducing the size and scope of the federal government and restoring power back to the states. Obviously, the first goal of conservatives is to continue to elect candidates that have the power to stop the trend of an ever-increasing federal government. The 2010 election cycle was a start, but many more strong state-rights advocates are needed to effect real change. Additionally, there is a new movement that would give states the ability to over-ride federal laws if a certain majority signed on. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) offered a constitutional amendment that would do just that. This would also provide a fair check-and-balance with a federal government that often claims authority where it constitutionally should have none.