Monday, January 09, 2012

The Constitution: Federal vs State Powers

This morning, Dear Readers, we return to our discussion of the Constitution that began back on January 2nd. We've already taken a look at the first three Articles, which establish the overall framework of the federal government (Article I, the Legislative Branch; Article II, the Executive Branch; and Article III, the Judicial Branch); today, we look at how the Constitution divides power between the federal government and the states.

One of the biggest problems for the Founders in writing the Constitution was finding an appropriate balance between the rights and powers of the central government and those of the individual states. The first attempt at a constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had proven to be unworkable because it established a central government too weak to accomplish its responsibilities relative to the states. The constitutional convention thus had the unenviable task of herding the state cats into agreement on a document which would require them to decide which of their powers they would give up in the interest of national unity and which they would retain. Here's how it worked out ...

Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution lays out the broad limits on the powers of the states versus the federal government. States can not, for instance, coin their own money, make war independently of the union, or grant titles of nobility.

Article IV of the Constitution makes all states equal within the union, states that the laws of each state apply equally to all other states, grants the citizens of each state equal rights in every other state, and makes the federal government responsible for the overall defense of the states.

But, having written the Constitution, the Founders weren't sure that they'd adequately ensured the rights, powers, and priviliges of the states relative to those of the federal government. They tried to correct this perceived oversight with the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the last article of what we today call The Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment cements the rights of the states when it states that

"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."

This is why we have a patchwork of laws and regulations that differ from state to state, but which are all equally enforceable within the framework of the union as long as they are compatible with the broad guidelines of the Constitution.

The rights of the states relative to those of the federal government remain an issue today, and States' Rights has long been a rallying cry for those who believe the federal government oversteps its authority. An extreme example may be found in the very name of a Confederate Army general of the Civil War: States Rights Gist.

There's much more to say about the tension between the states and the federal government, and in coming posts we'll discuss some of those issues. For now, we'll just leave the discussion with an interesting historical note that illustrates how the balance between the states and the national government has changed. Prior to the Civil War, if you were referring to the nation as a whole, you would have said that "The United States are...", emphasizing that the nation was an agreed-upon union of individual, independent states. Today, you would probably say that "The United States is..." emphasizing the overall union rather than the quasi-independent status of the individual states within that union.

It's an important philosophical distinction that resonates today when we listen to presidential candidates rail against out-of-control government, blaming Washington (insert dripping scorn) for every problem of the nation.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the Bill of Rights. As always, I'm interested in what you think. I don't pretend to be a Constitutional historial or scholar or any sort of expert on the subject (unlike some of the windbags you hear thundering from the far right and far left), so let's keep a civil discussion going. In an election year, especially one as important as this one, that discussion is of critical importance.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


1 comment:

eViL pOp TaRt said...

There has been an historical shift between states' rights and the Federal government for true. Some of it is due to Supreme Court decisions, but there is also because on some matters Washington provided incentives for compliance. Wasn't the drinking age uniformly set at 21 because states could get Federal highway money? Likewise, themuch-debated No Child Left Behind Act had Federally-set guideposts for compliance as a condition for funding.