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

Promoting a Return to Decentralized Government

The U.S. Capitol

 Kevin Dooley / Getty Images

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 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 treaties 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, for example, 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. Some allow them only around July 4th, and others allow those that don't fly in the air. Other states 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 want 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 important to only 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 to live in a state that best fits their personal values. Families and individuals are able to choose to live in states that have no or low income taxes or states with higher ones. They can opt for states with weak or strong gun laws. 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 ability.

Conflicts between state and federal governments are becoming more common. The states have begun to fight back and have either passed their own laws or have taken the federal government to court in protest. On some issues, though, states taking matters into their own hands results in a hodgepodge of inconsistent regulations across the country until federal laws are passed to decide the issue for the whole country.

While there are many examples of federal-state conflicts, here are a few key battle issues.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act 

The federal government passed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act in 2010 (which made some changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed a few days earlier), inflicting what conservatives say are 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, as the federal government, it was ruled, can legislate interstate commerce.

Conservative lawmakers argue that states should have the most authority to determine laws regarding health care. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney passed a statewide 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. (It was the model for the Affordable Care Act.) Romney argued that this is why state governments should have the power to implement laws that are right for their states. 

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, both 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 issue.

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. Police officers are allowed but not required to ask for proof of citizenship when pulling someone over, and they cannot arrest someone without a warrant if they believe that the person is deportable.

Voting Fraud

There have been alleged instances of voting fraud, with 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 be allowed to vote without photographic proof of your identity, such as by bringing a bank statement with your address or verification of your signature as compared with what's on file with the registrar. A number of states have sought to make it a requirement to show a government-issued ID to vote.

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 unreasonable to many people, given that there are laws requiring IDs for all sorts of other things, including driving, purchasing alcohol or tobacco, and flying on an airplane. The Department of Justice tried to prevent South Carolina from enacting the law as written. Ultimately, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it with changes. It still stands, but now ID is no longer necessary if the would-be voter has a good reason for not having it. For example, voters who are disabled or blind and can't drive don't often have government-issued IDs, or an elderly person may not have an ID because he or she never had a birth certificate. In North Dakota, which has a similar law, members of Native American tribes who live on reservations may not have photo IDs because their residences don't have street addresses.

The Goal of Conservatives

It remains highly unlikely that the largess of the federal government will return to the role that was originally intended, weak so that it didn't feel like a return to an oppressive monarchy. Ayn Rand once noted that it took more than 100 years for the federal government to get as large as it has, and reversing the trend would take equally as long. But if conservatives want to reduce the size and scope of the federal government and restore power back to the states, they need to continue to elect candidates that have the power to stop the trend of an ever-increasing federal government.