There is a much-needed debate about the ever-increasing power of the federal government at the expense of the states. Liberals and conservatives ought to be concerned, and given the behavior of Congress lately, perhaps there needs to be more state influence on their delegations.
The problem with discussing the 10th Amendment, which says those rights not accorded to the federal government are retained by the states, is that you get some yahoo like Texas Gov. Rick Perry talking about secession and Congressman Zach Wamp promising to stand on Interstate 81 at the Virginia line and prevent a federal invasion.
Conservatives talk a good game about keeping the federal government off your back—unless it's something they want. One of the beauties of the federal system is that states can experiment with ideas and provide a real life laboratory that other states can emulate or ignore. Marriage, for instance, is not a federal issue. But when states like Iowa allow gay marriage the conservatives run to Congress wanting a Defense of Marriage Act to forbid states making such decisions.
More and more states are allowing gay marriage, and it is up to those states to decide if that is what they want. Tennessee is not likely to join the stampede, but why is it any of our business if New York wants to allow it?
Oregon passed a referendum allowing the private use of marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Agency went nuts.
Most federal mandates are enforced by holding the purse strings. As long as the feds are putting up most of the money for Medicaid (TennCare in Tennessee), they can call the shots. Even though a one-size-fits-all system does not allow for innovation or experimentation by the states. Many governors would like the freedom to take the money and have more flexibility in how it is used. Do Arizona and Tennessee have the same medical issues? The same demographics?
It is constitutional for state legislatures to vote to call a national constitutional convention. You can't imagine the kind of mischief that would ensue. They could pass a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, for instance, and submit it to the states for ratification. But God knows what other amendments they might come up with.
States also have the ability to draw the district lines for their congressional delegation. They do this every 10 years after the census. But they don't have to. They can do it every two years if they'd like. If state legislatures decided to tell their delegations to start removing federal mandates or else they'll redistrict them out of office, it would get their attention.
No one wants state legislatures dictating to the national Congress what laws to pass. I'm just pointing out that states are not powerless to prevent the sort of shenanigans that have reduced the reputation of Congress to below that of child molesters and journalists.
It's all about power, of course. If the feds would just give the states grant money and allow them to determine its best use, it would require the Congress to give up its power to direct how it wants the money spent. The executive branch would be deprived of the ability to draft regulations to govern its own vision of how things ought to be.
When it comes to purely state issues, Congress is usually indifferent. It took forever for the minority of states without an income tax to get a permanent sales tax deduction from their federal income tax. Amazon is able to skip around the country and avoid collecting sales tax on retail purchases because the Congress just doesn't give a damn about state budget problems—and somebody might accuse them of voting for a tax increase.
One does wish now and then that the National Governors Association could explain to the Congress that they are not without solutions. Perhaps the Congress is like the stubborn old mule that required the farmer to hit him between the eyes with a two-by-four to get his attention.
Corrected: Frank misidentified the federal program that funds TennCare—it is Medicaid, not Medicare.