"States Rights" runs ahead of reason, once again

This morning the New York Times carries as its lead story something with this headline: States’ Rights Is Rallying Cry of Resistance for Lawmakers. And the article is replete with examples of state lawmakers passing measures that would, in theory, limit the reach of the federal government. So, just to repeat the examples that The Times leads with (having done our work for us already):

Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican, signed a bill into law on Friday declaring that the federal regulation of firearms is invalid if a weapon is made and used in South Dakota.

On Thursday, Wyoming’s governor, Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, signed a similar bill for that state. The same day, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives approved a resolution that Oklahomans should be able to vote on a state constitutional amendment allowing them to opt out of the federal health care overhaul.

In Utah, lawmakers embraced states’ rights with a vengeance in the final days of the legislative session last week. One measure said Congress and the federal government could not carry out health care reform, not in Utah anyway, without approval of the Legislature. Another bill declared state authority to take federal lands under the eminent domain process. A resolution asserted the “inviolable sovereignty of the State of Utah under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Times article points out that legal and constitutional scholars are pretty much of the view that this is mostly a bunch of hot air. But that doesn’t seem to be deterring state lawmakers from shouting a lot. It turns out there’s something called The Patrick Henry caucus in the Utah legislature which, according to The Times, “formed last year and led the assault on federal legal barricades in the session that ended Thursday.” There’s also something called The Tenth Amendment Center, which prides itself on pushing this sort of thing, as if Article 6 of the Constitution didn’t exist. It’s worth a quick look just to see how bizarrely some of this stuff can be dressed up.

We’ve been here before, of course, as we noted in our comment on the secessionists last summer. And, once again, it’s useful to drag out that interesting data from The Tax Foundation on which states are Givers and which states are Takers. Givers, remember, are states whose federal tax payments exceed money received back from the federal government; Takers are states who get back more in federal taxes than they pay. This is actually a useful way to look at the world, because, as is often the case, when you follow the money (or lack of it), a different story emerges. We might think of giver states as, say, Parents, and taker states as, say, Deadbeat Offspring. All sorts of potentially colourful labels emerge, but we’ll leave it at that.

Because, once again, you have to wonder if anyone knows anything anymore. Let’s take that Patrick Henry group in Utah, who probably think they’re choosing between Liberty or Death. If we check the good old Tax Foundation data for 2005 (the most recent year for which they present data), it turns out that Utah is—yes!—a taker, getting back $1.07 in federal spending for every $1 in federal taxes paid. So, Utah—a deadbeat state. South Dakota–ditto. South Dakota gets back a whopping $1.53 for every $1 paid in federal taxes. That’s pretty impressive. Wyoming? Check—it gets back $1.11 for every $1 paid. Oklahoma—a state with lots of oil? Hey, look, Oklahoma gets back $1.36 for every $1 paid.

Most of this, according to The Times, is driven by conservative ideology:

“There’s a tsunami of interest in states’ rights and resistance to an overbearing federal government; that’s what all these measures indicate,” said Gary Marbut, the president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, which led the drive last year for one of the first “firearms freedoms,” laws like the ones signed last week in South Dakota and Wyoming.

In most cases, conservative anxiety over federal authority is fueling the impulse, with the Tea Party movement or its members in the backdrop or forefront. Mr. Herrod in Utah said that he had spoken at Tea Party rallies, for example, but that his efforts, and those of the Patrick Henry Caucus, were not directly connected to the Tea Partiers.

But not all:

And in some cases, according to the Tenth Amendment Center, the politics of states’ rights are veering left. Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, for example — none of them known as conservative bastions — are considering bills that would authorize, or require, governors to recall or take control of National Guard troops, asserting that federal calls to active duty have exceeded federal authority.

Actually, this is potentially interesting—Vermont is a taker ($1.08), but Wisconsin is one of the 17 (yes, only 17) giver sates (at $0.86), and Rhode Island gets back exactly as much as it pays out. And Montana? Right, Montana gets back $1.47 for every buck it gives to the dreaded and overbearing federal government.

Really, the solution to this is pretty simple. Just pass a Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit states from receiving more in federal disbursements than it pays in federal taxes. If residents of Montana and Utah and the Old South (where secession talk has been cropping up more frequently) want to moan about the overbearance of the federal government, they should man up and agree not to take any more money from the federal government than they pay in. Gee, I wonder how that will turn out. Otherwise, let’s just laugh at them for being the hypocritical deadbeats that they are, and if we live in a Giver state, start leaning on our representatives about why we continue to subsidize these states whose legislatures clearly don’t appreciate it.

11 replies »

  1. There’s a huge state’s rights battle looming, but it isn’t getting much press yet. As of now, there will be a referendum in California this cycle to decriminalize marijuana. Unlike the current medical marijuana laws, there’s no skirting the fact that passing that referendum will put California in direct contravention of federal law. And in this case we don’t have state politicians posturing but the actual will of the electorate.

    The timing will also put the Obama administration in something of a bind. Does he squash the will of Californians, a blue state absolutely necessary for a Democrat to be elected president? My guess (assuming the referendum passes) is that there will be supreme court cases and all the rest, but again, Obama’s in a tough spot. Some of the usual hardball – like threatening to cut federal funds to CA – could blow up in his face. But letting CA do what it will opens up the barn door for states to negate federal laws.

    If he’s smart…which he isn’t…he’d preempt the issue by reclassifying the plant in question (and such a move would likely help his 2012 chances). Otherwise, the lowly species Cannabis sativa could well cause a Constitutional crisis of rather epic proportions.

    BTW, love the characterization as “deadbeat offspring”. Everyone wants all the benefits but many are loathe to pay for them.

  2. I suspect the intention of the California referendum people is just that–to force the feds to do something, and to bet that it will be to change the federal law. Yep, Obama is in a tough place here, and I hope does what you suggest.

    I’m starting to wonder whether referendums like this (and the one in California that brought it Proposition 13, which 30 years later has nearly bankrupted the state) are really a good idea. Yes, the will of the people and all that, but isn’t that what legislators are for? I go back and forth, frankly, and only note in passing the eternal optimsim of those of us who assume that the voting public is educated enough to know what it knows, and what it doesn’t.

  3. What is the point here – states which are “Takers” should have no rights? What rights should the states have?

    Let us extend this – individuals who are “takers” should also forfeit rights, at least temporarily. If you are receiving checks from the federal government, then you can’t vote for President or Congress. If you are receiving checks from a state government, you can’t vote for your governor or state representatives. If you receive a check from a county or municipality, forget about voting for your commissioner, mayor, or school board members. Such votes are, after, conflicts of interest. And we want to keep the “takers” from running things.

  4. um, how are anyone’s rights forfiet here, exccept maybe the “right” to feed at the trough of the public purse? Personally, I thought all of this was settled by the Consitution’s Article 6, but it keeps running, like the enrgizer bunny. This is simply about money. Personally, I don’t really care what Wyoming does with its gun laws. But why should I be subsidizing Wyoming taxpayers when they clearly can’t pay their own bills, and have to rely on the Federal government to do so while they’re bashing the government at the same time? If state legislatures want to bleat about the “overbearing” federal government, that’s fine. Just don’t expect me to be sympathetic when they’re relying on my taxes to help pay their bills.

  5. It doesn’t sound like we want “takers” to have no rights. I think the real point is that they should own up to the benefits that they get from being one of the UNITED States. If they seceded, they would, to some extent be worse off.

    Maybe that’s what they want.