Those uppity states

Fingers a-wagging, the nation's governors were in Washington this week to tell the White House and Congress how to do their jobs better, especially in serving the states. For all the talk of an imperial presidency, the states are taking the lead in solving national problems and taking power back to the people.

All 50 governors ganged up in a bipartisan demand that President Bush not cut down the National Guard as he proposes. After seeing the federal response to Katrina, the states know the Guard must be well equipped to deal with domestic disasters. Mr. Bush was forced to back down.

Washington's lack of bipartisan spirit has led to political gridlock and spurred states to take the lead in acting on many issues, from illegal immigrants to global warming to minimum wage to healthcare.

They've also reacted to controversial decisions by an often-divided Supreme Court.

Almost every state has moved to counter a court decision last June that allows the government to take private homes for the sake of a commercial development. Reining in this type of eminent domain has rallied both the left and right. The court's ruling also served as a reminder that local needs aren't always best determined in the nation's capital.

Governors remain more popular with voters than national lawmakers, largely because they must deal with nitty-gritty issues. It's no wonder that four of the past five presidents had served as governors and beat out US lawmakers in presidential elections.

Bush, a former Texas governor, promised in his bid for the White House to "make respect for federalism a priority in this administration." He hasn't always lived up to that promise.

After helping pass a 2002 federal law that requires mandatory testing in public schools, he's had to allow minor exceptions to such testing in some 20 states. And his administration's attempt to overrule Oregon's assisted-suicide law failed in a recent high court ruling.

Nonetheless, Bush's two Supreme Court appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, have a record of affirming the states' authority. In recent decades, the high court has made many decisions limiting federal power. These two new justices will push the court even further toward helping disburse power. A test of this court's trend to define federal limits will be seen in a coming ruling on whether the US Clean Water Act extends to isolated wetlands that are far from the navigable waters that affect interstate commerce.

A key framer of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote that rights are secured if the state and federal governments "control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself."

With Bush's court appointees, some states plan to challenge the court's rulings allowing abortions under most circumstances. Last week, South Dakota lawmakers passed a bill virtually banning abortions.

Such state actions, while often unwise, nonetheless reflect a necessary rebalancing of power to states, which are closer to the people and, as former Justice Louis Brandeis noted, serve as laboratories that can try "novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

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