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PERSPECTIVE ON STATES’ RIGHTS : End These Mandates, Funded or Not : Except for true commerce between the states, there should be no federal interference in local affairs.

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The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people. --U.S. Constitution, Article 10 Devolution. Unfunded mandates. Sovereignty. These words and phrases will be in the air over the next few weeks as Congress sets out to fulfill the message of the 1994 election: Make government smaller and get it closer to the people. For years, Congress, enamored of centralized government, has let federal control spread over an ever-widening range of activities, usually justifying this with a broad interpretation of the Constitution’s “commerce clause.” This is--to put it bluntly--illegitimate.

As the federal government and thus the federal deficit grew larger, Congress got into the habit of passing bills that required the states to carry out its wishes, often at their own expense. An example is the “motor voter” registration bill, which requires all states to couple driver’s license renewals with voter registration. California recently sued the federal government to avoid this unfunded federal mandate.

In 1994, Colorado, Hawaii, Missouri and Illinois enacted “sovereignty” resolutions. These reminded the federal government that the states are not its agent; that the Constitution intended it to be the other way around. These resolutions asked Washington to relinquish substantial authority, devolving, or transferring it to the states.

The leaders of the new Congress are serious about early passage of legislation that will require the federal government to provide funds for carrying out any mandates it imposes on the states and local governments. It is said in Washington that even the White House may cooperate with such legislation: a sign that the Clinton Administration, also, is getting the message of the recent election. But a fundamental issue still needs to be addressed. That is, that federal mandates, funded or otherwise, are illegitimate.

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The Constitution is based on the idea that government should be as close as possible to the people; that the federal government is to be entrusted only with functions that cannot be effectively performed at lower levels of government, such as national security. The voters clearly believe that the federal government has reached the limits of its competence in many areas and they want it reduced, not just “reinvented.” To bring government closer to the people, Congress should:

* Transfer to the states all powers not enumerated under the Constitution.

* Make all federal-state relationships consistent with state constitutional procedures. Some federal laws have specifically designated governors or other state or local officials to perform various mandated tasks, yet these people are not federal employees.

* Require the federal government to be the exclusive funder of its programs. And matching federal grants don’t count; they distort state and local decision-making and should be eliminated.

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* Revisit the constitutional clauses that have been the source of illegitimate federal expansion. The “commerce clause,” for example, should be restricted to genuine issues of interstate commerce, such as products that cross state lines.

* Eliminate federal interference in local affairs. All federal domestic intergovernmental relationships should be with the states, not with counties or cities.

Congress has enacted the laws by which the federal government has usurped power from the states while sharply increasing their expenses. A recent Reader’s Digest poll found that 67% of the people consider “big government” to be a threat to the nation’s future (up from 50% in 1985 and 35% in 1965.) The new leaders on Capitol Hill are talking as if they understand that an important way their performance will be measured is by their willingness to devolve power from Washington back to the states and local governments. What Congress has taken away, Congress can return to the people.


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