For more than 200 years the central argument in American government has been over the role of the states as members of the federal Union. The power of the states vis-a-vis the central national government has waxed and waned from the beginning days of the Republic in sympathy with the political winds of the times and the cycles of court interpretations of the Constitution.
Today the Reagan Administration is attempting to reassert its skewed concept of a New Federalism in concert with attacks on Supreme Court rulings that the Administration says have rendered the states virtually powerless in the shadow of an omnipotent central government.
But the Administration's basic argument largely is without foundation. Over the past decade the states have enjoyed a renaissance of vigor, innovation and independence. They have established their own economic development and trade programs and pioneered new concepts of welfare and income security, education reform and environmental protection.
In fact, the anti-court, states'-rights campaign appears to be a smokescreen for a political move to further pare back the federal government by dumping additional responsibilities onto the states. Specifically, the Administration long has sought to make welfare and medical aid to the poor a function of state government alone. President Reagan last year directed Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to study the welfare system and make proposals for its reform in 1987. The report last week from the White House's Domestic Policy Council, while not focused on welfare, may be laying the ground-work for such a campaign.
In theory, Reagan's concept of the New Federalism, as outlined early in his Administration, was not bad. A number of governmental functions would be turned back to the states, along with the taxing authority needed to finance those programs. But Reagan never could persuade Congress to give states the fiscal capacity to do the job. And he refused to budge, in the face of strong opposition from the National Governors' Assn., on his insistance that welfare become a state responsibility. All the while, federal aid to the states was cut, and cut some more.
While the President preached states' rights, he also promoted federal usurpation of state authority when it suited him--including the return to a 21-year-old legal drinking age, the setting of product-liability limits and controls over construction of nuclear power plants. The Administration even attempted to assert greater federal authority over the National Guard--the direct descendant of the Revolutionary Minutemen.
Many court decisions that offend the Reagan Administration were aimed not at depriving states of authority but at protecting individual rights. Some of the most significant ones, dealing with legislative apportionment and voting rights, have led directly to the resurgence of the states and their ability to control their own destinies.
The miracle of Philadelphia in 1787 was the creative power and intellect that brought about an entirely new system of national government based on individual rights and desires. The framers never meant it to be a static system, although the Reagan Administration now attempts to interpret the Constitution by reading the minds of the framers and determining their original intent. The framers knew that the nation's survival depended on an ability to mold the Constitution to the times as the nation grew. As Thomas Jefferson's good friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, said, "The chains which have bound the science of government in Europe are unloosed in America. Here, it is open to investigation and improvement."