Ken Plum: Redefining federalism

Listening to debate on the floor of the House of Delegates these days could lead one to conclude that Virginia’s relationship with the federal government is one of the principal issues facing the Commonwealth. The debates are not unlike those that took place when Virginia considered ratifying the new Constitution and joining the Union in 1787; in fact, Jefferson and Madison are quoted frequently. The debates about nullification, secession, and massive resistance may have sounded similar over the years.

The principal bill of which the Speaker of the House is the major proponent and is the author of a Wall Street Journal article on the subject would call a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to provide that two-thirds of the states could vote to void an act of the U.S. Congress or any regulation of the federal government. The bill has already passed the House of Delegates and is on its way to the Senate where it will probably be defeated. I voted against it. Problems with this approach are too numerous to detail here, but the smallest two-thirds of states could dictate to the majority population. Even some conservatives are fearful of what a constitutional convention could do to alter our form of government. Most Tea Party members support it.

Several other bills attempt to redefine federalism. One provides that any goods manufactured and used in Virginia would be beyond federal regulation. Actually, Virginia government depends on federal health and safety regulations in many areas. While it may seem positive to get the government out of people’s lives, the needs that federal regulations address about health and safety would soon become obvious.

Another bill provides that Virginia would not have to comply with any federal energy efficiency standards for residences. This bill is favored by those who oppose any kind of climate change legislation and those who want to get the federal government out of people’s lives. Never mind that federal standards work best in a marketplace that does not recognize state lines.

Both of those bills follow the pattern established last year when a bill was passed and signed by the Governor that provided that Virginians could not be forced to follow any federal health care plans. This is the bill that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli used to bring a legal suit against Obamacare. His suit is making its way through federal court.

When you see your highways deteriorating, school class size increasing, and your state becoming the butt of jokes on late-night television, you can know that it comes in part from the continued preoccupation to redefine federalism at the expense of taking on more immediate and serious issues.

(There are 17 bills introduced in the House of Delegates that assert the states’ rights arguments.)

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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