Congressional Quarterly: States’ Rights Are Back

Posted on January 26, 2015

Now that he’s a committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander finally has power to steer legislation on one of his favorite causes: states’ rights.

One of nine former governors in the Senate, Alexander has long championed a pragmatic vision for combining broad state flexibility with federal support. Now, his call for states’ rights appears to be gaining traction after sweeping GOP electoral gains in Congress and statehouses. Republicans now control 68 of the nation’s 98 legislative chambers — a historic high-water mark — and account for 31 governors.Leading the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Tennessee Republican says there is bipartisan support for at least two legislative initiatives that have been stalled for years: to give states the power to enforce sales taxes on online purchases and to reconfigure the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind education law.

In a time of strong GOP clout and virtual gridlock in Washington, Alexander says the time is ripe to funnel more clout to states. “We’ve got such a big, complex country. Washington just isn’t wise enough to make so many decisions about health care, about education. So I’m in favor of pushing as many of those decisions as possible back to communities and states,” he said.

For Democrats, Alexander’s approach has appeal because it could preserve programs that face big potential cuts and open the way for initiatives important to state officials from both parties.

Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin , D-Ill., backs Alexander’s states’ rights argument for online sales tax legislation, and says a similar approach might work in other areas.

“Historically, states’ rights — on civil rights, or environmental protection — have been asserted to stop the meeting of national goals. If Lamar Alexander has another approach that serves our national needs, using a states’ rights argument, I am receptive,” Durbin says.

Two weeks after the GOP’s electoral sweep, Alexander went to the floor to stress the support of 13 GOP governors, including 2016 presidential hopefuls Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, for an online sales tax enforcement measure that passed the Senate but stalled last year in the House. “Do you trust Washington or do you trust people closer to home?” Alexander asked. “The Marketplace Fairness Act is a 12-page bill about two words, which are states’ rights.”

In December, Alexander met with allies from the National Conference of State Legislatures as part of a drive to revive the online sales tax measure, and rebut anti-tax advocates on his right flank. “Sometimes Republicans aren’t any better than Democrats when it comes to respecting states’ rights,” Alexander said.

As an appropriator, Alexander has cited states’ rights under the 10th Amendment in defense of many aid grants, some environmental regulation, and state-sanctioned medical marijuana. The former Education secretary also has made empowerment the theme for an elementary and secondary education reauthorization that “gives back to states decisions about whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing” while cutting strings to federal funding.

While pushing for such potential compromises, Alexander makes clear he will rally Republicans to fight new federal mandates. For example, he leads opposition to Democratic proposals to raise the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. “States can have minimum wages if they choose to. I don’t think the federal government needs to do that,” he said.

Sotiros A. Barber, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, says states’ rights arguments have been used by both parties with mixed results. For example, liberals argue in defense of state laws allowing gay marriage and recreational marijuana. “You can see the incoherence of the idea in the fact that the left and right take different stands depending on what is at issue,” Barber said.

Despite growing use of such arguments, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher , R-Calif., says Alexander’s reputation for consistency in defense of states’ rights would stand out as lawmakers look for political cover on tough votes. “He’s got credentials,” Rohrabacher says.