You may not have heard much about it, but there’s a quiet movement afoot to reassert state sovereignty and stop the uncontrolled expansion of federal government power. Almost half of the state legislatures are currently considering or have representatives preparing to introduce resolutions to reassert the principles of the 9th and 10th Amendments and the idea that federal power is strictly limited to specific areas detailed in the Constitution and that all other governmental authority rests with the states.
In the version of this bill being considered in Washington state, they appeal to the authority of James Madison in The Federalist who wrote:
“”The powers delegated to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, [such] as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce. The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.”
The Founders believed in a balance between state and federal power. The state sovereignty movement clearly arises from the belief that the balance of power has tilted too far and for too long in the direction of the federal government and that it’s time to restore that lose balance.
The emergence of this movement is a hopeful sign of the people asserting their rights and the rights of the states and finally crying “enough” to runaway government. With the threat of increasingly out of control federal spending, some of these sovereignty bills may stand a fair chance of passage in the coming year.
There’s a lot of excitement about these bills, but there are also a lot of misconceptions, with people claiming that some states have already declared sovereignty and that the movement is much farther along than it really is.
Contrary to popular rumor, none of the states has actually enacted a sovereignty law yet. Some have come close. Oklahoma’s bill passed their lower house overwhelmingly but stalled in the Senate last fall and is being held over for consideration in the new year.
Contrary to the fantasies of some extremists, these sovereignty bills are not the first step towards secession or splitting up the union, nor are they an effort to block collection of the income tax, appealing though that might be. For the most part, they are not so much political statements of independence as they are expressions of fiscal authority directed specifically at the growing cost of unfunded mandates being placed upon the states by the federal government.
Despite the movement picking up steam as he came to office, the target of these bills is not President Obama, but rather the Democrat-dominated Congress whose plans for massive bailouts and expanded social programs are likely to come at an enormous cost to the states.
It has become increasingly common for Congress to pass legislation which dictates policy to the states, but which comes without adequate federal funding and the expectation that the cost of these programs, which the states had no real say in approving, will come out of state budgets. This has been a long-term problem with Medicaid and Medicare, but the unfunded mandate which stirred up the most ire recently was the No Child Left Behind program. More concern has been raised with the recent reauthorization and expansion of the SCHIP program which has a history of requiring more expenditure than is provided for in the federal budget.
The text of the bill proposed in Arizona makes the clearest statement of the intent to block unfunded mandates:
“That this Resolution serves as notice and demand to the federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”
“That all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties or sanctions or requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding be prohibited or repealed.”
What this movement is most similar to is the Nullification Crisis of 1832 where the State of South Carolina asserted that it had the right to nullify the authority of federal laws within its borders. In this case the states are not asserting anything as broad as the Doctrine of Nullification, but are merely reasserting the limits which the 10th Amendment places on federal authority, specifically as it applies to spending, the idea being that they don’t have to pay for federal mandates if their legislators choose not to.
Not all of the bills fall within these limitations. Missouri’s bill actually goes somewhat further and does assert the right of the state to negate federal law, specifically in reference to the proposed federal Freedom of Choice Act, which some fear would bar states from passing laws regulating abortion. New Hampshire’s bill actually goes so far as to lay out a very strongly worded variant of the Doctrine of Nullification which specifies acts by the federal government (many of them currently being proposed in Congress) which would effectively negate the Constitution and the authority of the federal government within their state. Hawaii’s proposed sovereignty bill comes very close to being an actual act of secession, based on native tribal rights.
As things stand right now, it looks like Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington will all definitely consider sovereignty bills this year. They may be joined by Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — where legislators have pledged to introduce similar bills.
Twenty states standing up to the federal government and demanding a return to constitutional principles is a great start, but it remains to be seen whether legislatures and governors are brave enough or angry enough to follow through.
As the Obama administration and the Democrat Congress push for more expansion of federal power and spending that may help provide the motivation needed for the sovereignty movement to take off.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the RLC.