Federalism: The Case for Reinvigorating State's Rights

A Definition of Federalism: The Case for Reinvigorating State's Rights
Federalism promotes a return to decentralized government

An ongoing battle rages over the proper size and role of the federal government, especially as it relates to conflicts with state governments over legislative authority. Conservatives believe that state and local governments should be empowered to handle local issues such as health care, education, immigration, and many other social and economic laws. This concept is known as federalism and it begs the question: Why do conservatives value a return to a decentralized government?

Original Constitutional Roles

There is little question that the current role of the federal government far exceeds anything ever imagined by the founders. It has clearly taken over many roles originally designated to individual states. Through the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers sought to limit the possibility of a strong centralized government and, in fact, they gave the federal government a very limited list of responsibilities. They felt that the federal government should handle issues that it would be difficult or unreasonable for states to deal with, such as maintenance of the military and defense operations, negotiating with foreign countries, creating currency, and regulating commerce with foreign countries.

Ideally, individual states would then handle most matters that they reasonably could. The founders even went further in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights to prevent the federal government from grabbing too much power.

Benefits of Stronger State Governments 

One of the clear benefits of a weaker federal government and stronger state governments is that the needs of each individual state are more easily managed. Alaska, Iowa, Rhode Island and Florida are all very different states with very different needs, populations, and values.

A law that may make sense in New York might make little sense in Alabama.

For example, some states have determined that it's necessary to prohibit the use of fireworks due to an environment that is highly susceptible to wildfires. Others have no such problems and their laws allow fireworks. It would not be valuable for the federal government to make one standardized law for all states prohibiting fireworks when only a handful of states need such a law in place. State control also empowers states to make tough decisions for their own well-being rather than hope that the federal government will see the states’ problem as a priority.

A strong state government empowers citizens in two ways. First, state governments are far more responsive to the needs of the residents of their state. If important issues are not addressed, voters can hold elections and vote for candidates who they feel are better suited to handle the problems. If an issue is only important to one state and the federal government has authority over that issue, then local voters have little influence to get the change they seek – they're just a small part of a larger electorate.

Second, empowered state governments also allow individuals to choose the state that best fits their own personal values.

Families and individuals are able to choose states that have no or low-income taxes or states with higher ones. They can opt for states with weak or strong guns laws, or with restrictions on marriage or without them. Some people may prefer to live in a state that offers a wide range of government programs and services while others may not. Just as the free market allows individuals to pick and choose products or services they like, so can they choose a state that best fits their lifestyle. Over-reaching federal government limits this option.

Conflicts between state and federal governments are becoming more common. As the federal government grows larger and begins imposing costly measures on states, the states have begun to fight back. While there are many examples of federal-state conflicts, here are a few key incidents.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act 

The federal government gave itself an incredible amount of power with the passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act in 2010, inflicting burdensome regulations on individuals, corporations and individual states. The passage of the law prompted 26 states to file a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law, and they argued that there were several thousand new laws that were nearly impossible to implement. However, the Act prevailed.

Conservative lawmakers argue that states should have the most authority to determine laws regarding health care. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney passed a state-wide health care law when he was governor of Massachusetts that was not popular with conservatives, but the bill was popular with the people of Massachusetts. Romney argued that this is why state governments should have the power to implement laws that are right for their states.

The American Health Care Reform Act of 2017 was introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2017. The House passed it by a narrow vote of 217 to 213 in May 2017. The bill was passed on to the Senate, and the Senate has indicated that it will write its own version. The Act would repeal the health care provisions of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 if passed in its present form. 

Illegal Immigration 

Another major area of contention involves illegal immigration. Many border states such as Texas and Arizona have been on the front lines of this issue.

Although there are tough federal laws dealing with illegal immigration, previous and current Republican and Democratic administrations have refused to enforce many of the laws. This has prompted a number of states to pass their own laws that battle the rise of illegal immigration in their own states.

One such example is Arizona, which passed SB 1070 in 2010 and was then sued by the Obama U.S. Department of Justice over certain provisions in the law. The state argues that their own laws mimic the laws of the federal government that are not being enforced. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that certain provisions of SB 1070 were prohibited by federal law.

Voting Fraud 

There have been many alleged instances of voting fraud over the past several election cycles, with instances of votes being cast in the names of individuals who were recently deceased, allegations of double registrations, and absentee voter fraud. In many states, you can simply show up to vote with any registered name and be allowed to vote without proof of your identity. A number of states have sought to make it a requirement to show a government-issued ID to vote, which has proven to be both logical and a popular idea among voters.

One such state is South Carolina, which passed legislation that would have required voters to present an official government-issued photo ID. The law doesn’t seem too unreasonable given that there are laws requiring IDs for all sorts of other things, including driving, purchasing alcohol or tobacco, and flying on an airplane.

But once again, the DOJ tried to interfere and prevent South Carolina from enacting the law. Ultimately, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals "upheld" it ... sort of, and after rewriting it. It still stands, but now ID is no longer necessary if the would-be voter has a good reason for not having it. 

The Goal of Conservatives 

It remains highly unlikely that the largess of the federal government will return to the role that was originally intended. Ayn Rand once noted that it took over 100 years for the federal government to get as large as it has, and reversing the trend would take equally as long. But conservatives must argue the necessity of reducing the size and scope of the federal government and restoring power back to the states. Obviously, the first goal of conservatives is to continue to elect candidates that have the power to stop the trend of an ever-increasing federal government. 


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key point made at 7:15-7:50.

... and I can't remember the other party ever taking the fight to the battleground of 'states rights' in any significant way. Just as the past few years, total concession instead of fighting the good fight.

maybe it's my puny computer but I couldn't finish reading at the link. Wonder how Texas armored it's electricity network. I see substations everywhere that don't indicate anything special.

When windmill generated electricity was a big topic I got interested enough in the electricity networks/grids to form an opinion. Dependency on centralized electricity generation is risky and unnecessary. BUT it's the corporate way... and will prevail - no matter the risk of everybody being totally debilitated from a sunspot or bad guy with a bomb. Centralized is a single point of failure - distributed is not. Sound networks aren't designed with a single point of failure. But ours are, for corporation +/or municipal providers' sake. Distributed is far better than centralized in the networking world, whether it be data or electricity.

Jay H. Lehr: The Beginning of the End of EPA


At the Republican National Convention last summer, the GOP approved a platform that stated: “We propose to shift responsibility for environmental regulation from the federal bureaucracy to the states and to transform the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] into an independent bipartisan commission, similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with structural safeguards against politicized science.” It also says “We will likewise forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, something never envisioned when Congress passed the Clean Air Act.”

The GOP followed the lead of President Donald Trump, who in a March debate said he would abolish EPA, and in a May speech in North Dakota condemned “the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of totalitarian tactics” that has “denied millions of Americans access to the energy wealth sitting under our feet. This is your treasure, and you – the American People – are entitled to share in the riches.”

Trump and the GOP are saying, finally, what millions of people have been thinking for a long time: EPA has become the cause of, not the solution to, the nation’s major environmental problems. It’s time to end EPA.

A Promising Beginning

In the late 1960s, the United States faced real problems regarding the quality of its air and water, waste disposal, and contamination from mining and agriculture. Pollution crossed borders – the borders between private property as well as between cities, states, and nations – and traditional remedies based on private property rights didn’t seem to be working. The public was overly complacent about the possible threat to their safety.

Many scientists, myself included, lobbied the federal government to form a cabinet-level agency to address these problems. [1] In 1971, EPA was born. During the agency’s first 10 years, Congress passed seven legislative acts to protect the environment, including the Water Pollution Control Act (later renamed the Clean Water Act), Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Clean Air Act.

At first, these laws worked well, protecting the environment and the health of our citizens. Problems were identified, measured, exposed, and major investments were made to reduce dangerous emissions and protect the public from exposure to them. EPA and other government agencies regularly report the subsequent dramatic reduction in all the pollutants we originally targeted. By the 1980s, nothing more needed to be done beyond monitoring our continuing success in cleaning up the environment. It was time to declare victory and go home.

EPA Is Now an Obstacle

Beginning around 1981, however, radical Leftists realized they could advance their political agenda by taking over the environmental movement and use it to advocate for ever-more draconian regulations on businesses. Environmentalists allowed this take-over to occur because it brought massive funding from liberal foundations, political power, and prestige. [2]

Politicians realized they could win votes by pandering to the environmental movement, repeating their pseudo-scientific claims, and posing as protectors of nature and the public health. The wind, solar, and ethanol industries saw they could use regulations to handicap competitors or help themselves to public subsidies.

Today, EPA is a captive of activist and special-interest groups. Its regulations have nothing to do with protecting the environment. Its rules account for nearly half of the $2 trillion annual cost of complying with all national regulations in the United States.

In 2008, The Heritage Foundation estimated the costs of EPA’s first proposal to regulate greenhouse gases in the name of fighting global warming were “close to $7 trillion and three million manufacturing jobs lost.” According to Heritage, “the sweep of regulations … could severely affect nearly every major energy-using product from cars to lawnmowers, and a million or more businesses and buildings of all types. And all of this sacrifice is in order to make, at best, a minuscule contribution to an overstated environmental threat.”

President Barack Obama has routinely used EPA to circumvent Congress to impose severe regulations on farmers, ranchers, other private landowners, fisheries, and the energy sector. Just last week, the agency rushed through approval of new fuel efficiency standards for automobiles more than a year ahead of schedule to thwart any attempts by the Trump administration to stop it. Courts and Congress have objected to and tried to limit EPA’s abuses, but without noticeable success. Once a genuine success story, EPA has become the biggest obstacle to further environmental progress.

Replacing EPA

The solution is to return this authority to the states, replacing EPA with a Committee of the Whole of the 50 state environmental protection agencies.

State EPAs already have primary responsibility for the implementation of the nation’s environmental laws and EPA regulations. With more than 30 years of experience, these state agencies are ready to take over management of the nation’s environment.

Accountable to 50 governors and state legislatures, state EPAs are more attuned to real-world needs and trade-offs. Located in 50 state capitols, they are less vulnerable to the Left’s massive beltway lobbying machine.

The Committee would be made up of representatives from each state. EPA could be phased out over five years, which could include a one-year preparation period followed by a four-year program in which 25 percent of the agency’s activities would be passed to the Committee each year.

Seventy-five percent of EPA’s budget could be eliminated and most of the remainder would pay for national research labs. A small administrative structure would allow the states to refine existing environmental laws in a manner more suitable to protecting our environment without thwarting the development of our natural resources and energy supplies.

Benefits of Replacing EPA

The federal budget for environmental protection could be reduced from $8.6 billion to $2 billion or less. Staffing could be reduced from more than 15,000 to 300. The real savings, of course, would be in reduction of the $1 trillion in annual regulatory costs EPA imposes each year.

This reform would produce a second huge benefit by ending the government’s war on affordable energy. EPA is the principal funder and advocate of global warming alarmism, the myth that man-made climate change is a crisis. That movement would end on the day EPA’s doors shut, allowing Congress to return to taxpayers and consumers a “peace dividend” amount to some of the $4 billion a day currently spent world-wide on climate change.

Dismantling EPA is one part of a comprehensive set of reforms, many of them discussed by Trump and referred to in the GOP platform, to lighten the massive weight of government regulations on the American people. The nation needs a pro-energy, pro-environment, and pro-jobs agenda that recognizes the tremendous value of the natural resources under our feet.

While the rest of the world stumbles blindly in the grip of an anti-energy and anti-freedom ideology, the U.S. can march ahead and regain its place as the world’s economic and technological leader.

The nation’s environment is in terrific shape, thanks to early efforts by EPA and more recent efforts by state governments and businesses. The nation’s economy and environment will be even better if the federal government gets out of the way.

EPA has long outlived its usefulness. Let’s return its powers to the states, where they belong.

Jay H. Lehr, Ph.D., jlehr@heartland.org, is science director of The Heartland Institute and editor of The Alternative Energy and Shale Gas Encyclopedia. (Wiley, 2016).


having listened to Pruitt's confirmation hearing the other day -- I'd expect something very similar to this is what he has in mind too. It'd surely be a positive change if it can be achieved.

;' /

it was a marathon hearing. around 6 hours I think. the Ds don't like him at all and badgered him mercilessly. ...and every time they did, which was every time they spoke, Issa entered something (articles, letters, etc..) into the record to contradict their points made while badgering.

Larry, Thanks for adding additional information to American's.  This is the way it used to be done. We are all better educated when it is done this way.

American has filled a void in the postings and it is very apparent how hard she is working to educate and inform.

Thanks, AM.   I have to admit I've fallen off in the past few months and am so very happy to see you doing a great job.

Larry, Thanks for your contributions as well.  It's so good to have infusion of new thoughts, posts and contributions.


yeah, I agree about American's efforts.  ..and the formatting.

looks familiar, but only a little. Seems their effort at least a couple years ago was worded differently. Making marriage a church function, and this one not so much if at all. It also seems like maybe I remember a SCOTUS ruling against it.

they're on the right track, and apparently determined. Hope they succeed and show the way for others.

sounds a lot like protecting the status quo dominant parties to me. whatever the (?sound?) reasoning may be for a two party system, both the current dominant parties' behaviors and actions have discredited it.

IF Pruitt does what he says should be done with EPA this is the type of issue (regional haze) that will be worked out between states' environmental agencies. EPA would no longer be the central authority dictator, more of a facilitator of an agreement the states come to with each other.

I think that would be an interesting experiment, and a major victory - although probably only temporary due to EPA still existing.

this regional haze issue is also a good example of Sierra Club's nefarious partnership with EPA. Sierra Club's role of members flooding social media with complaints and demands to validate what is next on EPA's Agenda21 agenda was in full practice on this case.

Texas is passing several laws worth noting. A bathroom law will probably garner national attention too. But maybe the one I'm happiest about is an annexation law that curbs cities' power to annex surrounding areas. Making it necessary for those who will be annexed to agree to it - excluding voters already within the city. 

Texas Senate passes bill to allow people to vote on whether a city can annex them


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