States rebel against Washington
The pushback against federal power began under Bush, but may now be accelerating.
Atlanta — 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.
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.
•The Idaho House began considering Wednesday a law against introducing "vicious animals" into the state – a direct rebuttal of the federal wolf reintroduction program.
•Montana and Tennessee have introduced proposals to expand gun rights. Tennessee State Sen. Doug Jackson says his bill to ban proposed federal "microstamping" of ammunition could spark a movement. "The trampling on our rights to possess firearms is symbolic of a power grab by the federal government on a much larger scale," said Senator Jackson, by phone from Nashville.
•Oklahoma and Georgia are both considering limits on stem cell research in response to Mr. Obama's reversal of the federal stem cell ban. It's the flip side of the Bush era when several Northeastern states allowed such research despite the federal ban.
The status of "state sovereignty" resolutions are largely up in the air, with a few passed, some moving through committee, and some voted down. New Hampshire's resolution, the only one with a "nullification" of the Union clause, was voted down largely along partisan lines.
A response to federal expansion
Although the idea of states' rights took hold in the run-up to the Civil War in order for the South to preserve, among other things, the institution of slavery, today's debates are really about whether there's any power left for the states to carve out of the Constitution.
"If you set up the principle where the federal government can do everything, then, yes, eventually they will do everything. If not, where's the line they can't cross?" says Michael Boldin, president of the Tenth Amendment Center in Los Angeles. "That's the Constitution, I believe."
The courts mainly stood by as federal power expanded by great leaps in the 1930s and the 1960s. There's been another burst of federal expansion in the 2000s, including Mr. Bush's USA Patriot Act and Obama's proposed overhaul of banking regulations.
The fact is, "there's no longer any effective limitations on federal power," says Randy Barnett, a Georgetown law professor who argued for California's medical marijuana law in front of the Supreme Court.
Yet the state sovereignty movement is by no means frivolous and could have significant political firepower. The medical marijuana case in California, for instance, showed that Washington can be forced to scale back its ambitions in the face of populist sentiment.
And although Pitts hails from Abbeville, the place where the South's first secession votes were cast, he insists that today's efforts to check federal power aren't limited to regional pockets or even political affiliation. "The mainstream media would portray some of us as rednecks, whether we're from Pennsylvania, Oregon, or South Carolina," says Pitts. "But this is a wake-up call. And if Washington doesn't heed that wake-up call, revolution is on the horizon."