Oh, how they love that siren song of states’ rights -- until they don’t like hearing us singing it.
In a disturbing story, my Washington colleague Evan Halper chronicles how some D.C. regulators and big corporations -- like the ones that pollute the air and the water in the name of unfettered capitalism, the ones that are cavalier about worker safety and animal welfare -- are so peeved that Californians are using their votes and the state’s authority to clean up the air and water, require kinder treatment of livestock animals and the like, that they are flexing their political muscle to stop us, to drag California back to their level, to do things their way.
Companies, writes Evan, are going crying to GOP leaders to make California stop: to void California’s consumer protection laws, especially when it comes to toxic materials; to gut our clean water and global warming laws; to void our worker protection laws; even undo our regulations banning the sale of eggs laid under inhumane circumstances, banning the force-feeding of geese for foie gras and the cutting off of sharks’ fins just for soup. They don’t like our rules because they have to play by them or lose a shot at the most populous market in the country. So rather than clean up their own act, they want to force us to dirty up ours.
“I have a state that wants to set the bar higher,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who helped write several major California regulatory laws while serving in the Assembly. “On human health, on animal cruelty, on all sorts of things. The federal government should be supporting that. But there are some industries that are on a race to the bottom.”
Why are these guys so threatened? They’re challenging us: Who do we think we are, anyway? Why should Californians get to pass laws to make it possible for us to live any better or healthier than people in their states? What if people in their states get a load of what Californians are doing, and get it into their heads that they want the same protections? We certainly can’t have that, can we?
So they want Congress to big-foot California with the argument that our laws damage interstate commerce or interfere with federal authority. As Evan writes, D.C. Democrats “typically don't have a problem with the state's liberal policies, and Republicans have preferred to avoid infringing on states' rights.”
That made me think about how some states have exercised states’ rights recently -- using them to restrict the rights of women, of minority voters, of students. States’ rights seems to be just fine for those states when it’s about limiting individuals' rights but not when it comes to expanding them, as California has -- the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, for example.
Oh, but how could I forget? Corporations are individuals too. They don’t get sick from filthy air or foul water, but evidently they must not be impeded from creating the filth or doing the fouling. Corporations are telling Congress that their wittle feelings and their great big corporate wallets are vewwy vewwy hurt by California’s protections for those other individuals -- the real ones, with faces. And lungs.
This is another twist on a favorite tactic in the NRA’s playbook. The NRA will adroitly battle state and local gun safety laws by arguing that we can’t have a piecemeal, patchwork set of laws across the country -- much too confusing and unfair. This has to be dealt with on a federal level. But as soon as any such laws begin to get a hearing in Congress -- bang, the NRA manages to get them shot down because the 2nd Amendment is the third rail of Capitol Hill.
California has done this before; only the tone of Congress and corporations’ sense of power is different. Women in California could vote, in all but federal elections, several years before the nation gave women the vote. California legalized abortion before many other states. The state led the way in smoking bans. It pioneered environmental protections. We like clean air. We like clean water. We like a thriving natural world that comes with those things. We like healthy children and humane animal laws. We are willing to vote and pay to make those things happen -- like gas prices, for example. Our high school students don’t have to worry that we’re hampering their college admission chances by not teaching them evolution or the Big Bang. Our voters don’t have to worry that California legislators are bent on passing laws meant to make it harder to vote.
Our state motto is “Eureka,” “I have found it,” but under these circumstances, it might be Missouri’s state motto: “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”