Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the rise – or return – of various groups promulgating “states rights,” often stating that various federal agencies are unconstitutional, and that the states have the right of nullification of various federal laws or regulations they don’t agree with. It’s not new, it’s been a part of the political debate since the beginning – and unfortunately for those who make those claims, they haven’t been winning arguments.
The problem these arguments face is that they might have had a case up until the development of the railroads and canal system. Once goods started being moved in bulk around the country, most of these arguments failed in the face of the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to:
Consider the country today. Take a look through your kitchen shelves and in your refrigerator. How much of the food in there was grown and processed within your state? Take a look through your medicine cabinet. Anything in there made strictly in your state? I don’t know about you, but even though New York has a pretty sizable agricultural base (surprisingly to people outside the state) and medical/pharmaceutical industry, there’s still a lot of things that didn’t originate here. Some of them even came in from overseas. As long as people were growing their own food, or only eating locally grown foods, and most medicines were local nostrums, you might have made a case for keeping the federal government out of it. The same is true a host of other products and goods we now take for granted. As long as all that was locally made, and in-state only, there was no need for federal rules or a federal interest. But once you have a means of readily distributing it across state borders – or even international ones – then it falls under the federal government. New York State can’t tell California to regulate food or pharmaceuticals, or regulate them the same way it does, but the federal government can regulate them, and it provides a standard for it that applies across the country.
What about other rules? Those fall under the same powers, but the first clause:
The Congress shall have Power lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;
As an example, this covers various environmental regulations. If the case can be made that it’s local, and will stay so, then an argument could be made that the federal government has no role in promulgating – and enforcing – environmental regulations. The problem is that it isn’t, and you can’t. There are lakes here in the Adirondacks which are “dead.” They have no fish or any organisms higher than some nematodes living in them. The water is acid – very acid. I happen to know (historical data) that 75 years ago, those same lakes were considered premium trout fishing. Now, there isn’t a fish in them. In many of the lakes that do have fish in them, I can’t eat more than one meal a month of most fish I catch. Natural processes at work, or something that happened inside the state? No. It’s because of acid rain and mercury deposition caused by coal burning electric and industrial plants in the Midwest. In other words, because the people in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere get their electricity from coal, and used coal extensively in their industries, the people in the Adirondacks of New York have dead lakes and can’t eat the fish they catch. That’s just my area, but it’s a problem across much of New England as well. The problem crosses state lines, which puts it under the federal government – if not Congress, then the Courts. Consider the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Did it only impact Louisiana? Was the well in Lousiana’s waters? No. It was in federal waters, and the spill itself affected states from Louisiana to Florida.
Those are just a few of the areas where the “states rights” and “strict construction” groups tend to fall short in their arguments. In order for the Federal government to not “have the right,” or the power to do many of the things they’re railing about, they need to do away with many of the things they’re now used to – and ignore the modern world. This country is no longer 13 sparsely populated states with an agricultural based economy. It’s got a population of 300 million, spans a continent, and is a world power. In 1800, it took weeks – if not months – to travel from South Carolina to Massachusetts. Today, I can do it a few hours, or if I decide to take the “slow way,” two or three days. Goods, services, and ideas flow around the country, at a speed that only madmen would have thought possible back then.
It’s a tribute to the authors of the Constitution that the document they created over 200 years ago – the framework for the government it established – is still relevant, and serves quite well to govern a country that is a far different one from the one they wrote it for. But the idea that most things can be left to the states is one that has not stood up. Whether you like it or not, the reality is that the states are now too interlinked, and what happens in one state can – and frequently does – have impacts on others. Which is why it’s a Federal responsibility.