More Federalism Proposals

IN this last installment of a three-part series, the Monitor reviews the final two proposals from last week's ''States Federalism Summit'' in Cincinnati. At that meeting, the executive committees of five organizations representing state officials called for study of four ideas to redress what many see as the imbalance in federal-state powers.

Proposal 3: ''A mechanism that would allow the states to propose specific amendments to the US Constitution subject to ratification by the United States Congress.''

Congress now can pass a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds margin in both houses. Then three-quarters of the states must ratify it. The Constitution also provides that two-thirds of the states can demand a constitutional convention. This has never been done, since a convention could revise the whole Constitution, which no one wants.

This proposal, which would have to be a constitutional amendment, would allow three-quarters of the states to propose a constitutional amendment, which could then be ratified by a two-thirds margin of both houses of Congress.

Arguments in favor: Such a move would restore state leverage, since the constitutional-convention procedure is impractical. It would open the way for states to propose amendments that would restore their place in the federal-state balance, something Congress has no incentive to do. It would give states a role in setting the constitutional agenda and make Congress more sensitive to state concerns. And it would force states to work together more closely to solve common problems.

Arguments against: This could lead to a glut of proposed amendments and diminish respect for the Constitution. The first state legislatures proposing an amendment might not give it the serious consideration it deserves, thus increasing pressure on the final group of states considering it. In the worst case, Congress and the states might race each other to propose a popular amendment and take credit for it, each seeking to stick the other with the tough decision on ratification. The proposal is only a procedural fix, and there is no guarantee that Congress would ratify any amendment proposed by the states. And it would be tough to get a constitutional amendment passed.

Proposal 4: ''Statutory remedies and/or constitutional reforms to address the problems of condition attached to spending grants, regulations, and mandates.''

A ''statutory remedy'' would resemble the Federalism Act described yesterday in Proposal 1, with similar advantages and disadvantages. One proposal for a constitutional amendment would bar the federal government from requiring the states to enforce federal regulations, limit the use of strings attached to federal grants, and forbid unfunded mandates.

Arguments in favor: Such an amendment would restore the original constitutional balance by limiting Congress to the specific powers set forth in the Constitution. It would not damage Washington's authority to create federal programs or prevent states from cooperating with Washington. Congress could still mandate how federal grant money is to be spent, but could not impose conditions beyond that. And Congress could still enact mandates if it is willing to pay for them.

Arguments against: Constitutional amendment is difficult. It will be difficult to agree on what the problem is and on definitions in the amendment's language. Since the ''states' rights'' argument has been used historically as an excuse to resist civil-rights and other progressive legislation, this proposal could be a particularly hard sell. Many are concerned that this amendment would repeal (as they apply to states) laws such as the Voting Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The tug of war between the federal government and the states is nothing new and will continue, these proposals notwithstanding. The challenge is to find ways to reestablish the state leverage that the Founding Fathers intended without going too far in the opposite direction. A strong federal government is as important today - if not more so - as it was in 1787.

* Last of a three-part series.

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