States rebel against Washington
The pushback against federal power began under Bush, but may now be accelerating.
There's an old joke in South Carolina: Confederate President Jefferson Davis may have surrendered at the Burt-Stark mansion in Abbeville, S.C., in 1865, but the people of state Rep. Michael Pitts's district never did.Skip to next paragraph
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With revolutionary die-hards behind him, Mr. Pitts has fired a warning shot across the bow of the Washington establishment. As the writer of one of 28 state "sovereignty bills" – one even calls for outright dissolution of the Union if Washington doesn't rein itself in – Pitts is at the forefront of a states' rights revival, reasserting their say on everything from stem cell research to the Second Amendment.
"Washington can be a bully, but there's evidence right now that there are people willing to resist our bully," said Pitts, by phone from the state capitol of Columbia.
Just as California under President Bush asserted itself on issues ranging from gun control to medical marijuana, a motley cohort of states – from South Carolina to New Hampshire, from Washington State to Oklahoma – are presenting a foil for President Obama's national ambitions. And they're laying the groundwork for a political standoff over the 10th Amendment, which cedes all power not granted to Washington to the people.
The movement's success will largely depend on whether Washington sees these legislative insurgents as serious – or, as Pitts puts it, as just "a bunch of rednecks."
"There's a lot of frustration when someone quite distant from you forces you to do something you don't want to do," says Steve Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in D.C. "That's the root cause, and it ends up being rationalized in constitutional terms."
The reversal of the federal stem cell research ban, a stimulus package widely seen as a backdoor grasp for more federal power, and fears about gun control have accelerated a state sovereignty movement that began taking shape under the Bush administration. In the past, both liberals and conservatives have used states' rights arguments for political expedience. That may be the case now as ousted conservatives try to force issues out of Washington and into states, where they have a better chance of winning them.
"Where power resides and who gets to do what – there's been an ongoing interpretation of that through our history," says Idaho State Rep. George Sayler of Coeur d'Alene, who voted against a states' rights bill that passed recently in the Gem State. "Sometimes the federal government asserts a stronger role, and it looks now like we might be getting into a period where the states" push for more power.