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

Federalism promotes a return to decentralized government

The U.S. Capitol
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An ongoing battle rages over the proper size and role of the federal government, 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 health care, education, immigration, and many other social and economic laws. This concept is known as federalism and it begs the question: 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. It has clearly taken over many roles originally designated to individual states. Through the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers sought to limit the possibility of a strong centralized government and, in fact, they gave the federal government a very limited list of responsibilities. They felt that the federal government should handle issues that it would be difficult or unreasonable for states to deal with, such as maintenance of the military and defense operations, negotiating with foreign countries, creating currency, and regulating commerce with foreign countries.

Ideally, individual states would then handle 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 that it's necessary to prohibit the use of fireworks due to an environment that is highly susceptible to wildfires. Others have no such problems and their laws 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 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, voters can hold elections and vote for candidates who they feel are better suited to handle the problems. If an issue is only important to one state and the federal government has authority over that issue, then local voters have little influence to get the change they seek – they're just a small part of a larger electorate.

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

Conflicts between state and federal governments are becoming more common. As the federal government grows larger and begins imposing costly measures on states, the states have begun to fight back. While there are many examples of federal-state conflicts, here are a few key incidents.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act 

The federal government gave itself an incredible amount of power with the passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act in 2010, inflicting 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. However, the Act prevailed.

Conservative lawmakers argue that states should have the most authority to determine laws regarding health care. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney passed a state-wide health care law when he was governor of Massachusetts that was not popular with conservatives, but the bill was popular with the people of Massachusetts. Romney argued that this is why state governments should have the power to implement laws that are right for their states.

The American Health Care Reform Act of 2017 was introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2017. The House passed it by a narrow vote of 217 to 213 in May 2017. The bill was passed on to the Senate, and the Senate has indicated that it will write its own version. The Act would repeal the health care provisions of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 if passed in its present form. 

Illegal Immigration 

Another major area of contention involves illegal immigration. Many border states such as Texas and Arizona have been on the front lines of this issue. Although there are 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 in 2010 and was then sued by the Obama U.S. Department of Justice 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. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that certain provisions of SB 1070 were prohibited by federal law.

Voting Fraud

There have been many alleged instances of voting fraud over the past several election cycles, with instances of votes being cast in the names of individuals who were 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 of your identity. A number of states have sought to make it a requirement to show a government-issued ID to vote, which has proven to be both logical and a 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 IDs for all sorts of other things, including driving, purchasing alcohol or tobacco, and flying on an airplane. But once again, the DOJ tried to interfere and prevent South Carolina from enacting the law. Ultimately, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals "upheld" it ... sort of, and after rewriting it. It still stands, but now ID is no longer necessary if the would-be voter has a good reason for not having it. 

The 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 take equally as long. But 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.