Don’t tread on me: State lawmakers curry conservative favor with anti-Washington measures

By Seanna Adcox, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

State lawmakers bash Congress to gain voter favor

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With tax collections tanking and jobless rates at record highs, state legislators hundreds of miles from Washington have found an easy way to appeal to conservative voters: Bash the federal government.

Lawmakers in 44 states have introduced measures warning Congress not to trample states’ rights and dozens of other resolutions opposing the government on issues including gun control and health care.

Their efforts play to people angry with the status quo. A recent Pew Research Center poll found high anti-incumbent sentiment among voters ahead of the November congressional elections.

“The closer you are to elections, you see legislators with more backbone,” said Michael Boldin of the California-based Tenth Amendment Center, a nonpartisan think tank named for the constitutional amendment that specifies any power not granted to the federal government is reserved for the states. “I’m sure there’s a lot of grandstanding.”

No states are likely to secede from the union, but they could derail or delay federal legislation the way they have by balking at a national identification program billed as a way to fight terrorism and identity theft. Most states still aren’t complying with the Real ID law passed in 2005.

In conservative South Carolina, Republican House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham said his caucus made standing up to the federal government a top priority this year.

“I hear it at church, at the barber shop: ‘You guys need to stand up.’ The issue of federal intrusion is a John Doe issue,” he said. “This is a yes-point for us. They’re mad. They’re upset. They expect us to respond.”

That response included passing a resolution to assert the state’s rights under several constitutional amendments. It says South Carolina’s attorney general will sue if Congress passes mandates the state deems unconstitutional, and that no state agency will follow them while a decision is pending.

“To say public reaction and being vocal doesn’t have any influence is ludicrous,” Bingham said. “That’s how you enact change in a civilized society.”

Eight states — Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee — have passed resolutions asserting states’ rights under the 10th Amendment, according to Boldin’s group. Another passed the Kansas Senate last week after hundreds of residents rallied, brandishing copies of the U.S. Constitution, and vowed to “take their country back.”

In South Carolina, the House has already passed an expanded version of a state rights measure it first approved last year. A version is awaiting Senate approval.

“It is vitally important for the future of our nation that the states stand against the relentless expansion of the federal government and restore the proper balance to our federal system,” it reads.

Some Democratic legislators call the measures pointless, political moves that do nothing to improve residents’ lives. Black Democrats in South Carolina say Republican efforts are reminiscent of South Carolina’s declaration of secession 150 years ago, which, they noted, didn’t work out so well.

“We’re talking about seceding from the union,” said Rep. Chris Hart, D-Columbia. “I thought we tried that.”

Mark Killenbeck, a University of Arkansas School of Law professor, said he doubts the measures would stand up in court, but they could have a political effect.

The backlash isn’t limited to conservative legislation or the nascent “tea party” movement, which calls for reduced government: Proposals in Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, urge President Barack Obama to bring the states’ National Guard troops home from Iraq, arguing congressional authorization for their federal deployment has expired.

Some legislators are becoming increasingly defiant, with more states considering bills that seek to nullify federal law, rather than simply sending a message.

In Virginia, legislators have passed the so-called Health Care Freedom Act, an effort to annul mandates proposed in congressional health care legislation, which has stalled since Massachusetts voters sent Republican Scott Brown to the Senate to replace the late Ted Kennedy.

More than 30 other states have introduced similar legislation modeled after the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act” since the limited-government group endorsed it in late 2008.

In Arizona, legislators voted to put a constitutional health care amendment on the November ballot. While a similar, citizen-led proposal was defeated in 2008 by less than half a percent, proponents say voters now have a clearer understanding of the issue.

“The ability for citizens of a state to stand up and make their case at the state level does have an impact on what Washington does and Washington believes,” said Dr. Eric Novack, a Phoenix-based orthopedic surgeon who led the Arizona effort. “It’s critically important that Americans act, and act aggressively, to protect and preserve their freedoms.”

One state’s efforts are already in federal court.

Montana last year passed the Firearms Freedom Act, which says guns made and kept in-state are exempt from national gun control laws. Gun advocates sued in federal court to validate the law, while federal officials want the case to be dismissed. Tennessee passed the same law and legislators in nearly two dozen other states are considering similar bills.

Political scientist Scott Huffmon of Winthrop University said states’ rights measures appeal to conservatives without angering other voters.

“I don’t think it’s high enough on the radar among non-conservative voters to cause a blowback … to dig into the motives enough to say, ‘Why are they doing this?’” he said.

Woody Lucas, a 60-year-old Lexington resident, said it’s pointless posturing.

“It’s a complete waste of time,” he said while eating lunch at a diner in West Columbia. “Everything’s already set by federal law.”

Columbia resident Henry Brown said he’d ordinarily agree “but things have gotten so sideways.”

“We need to say enough’s enough,” said Brown, 58, an attorney. “Anything to criticize what’s going on in Washington right now is a good idea.”

(This version CORRECTS Corrects to eight states have passed resolutions, sted seven.)

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