Federalism & the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate

Unlike the first presidential debate which included a number of issues relating to federalism and state and local politics – the VP debate did not address federalism. There was no real debate on education, medicaid or the health care reform. Consequently – we’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to discuss the issues related to this blog.

The Founders and State Representation in Congress

A number of commentators are supporting reforms designed to give state legislatures more authority over their congressional delegations. These are rooted in a concern that the federal government has preempted too much state authority and imposed expensive unfunded mandates. In a future post I will examine the most popular of these proposals: the repeal of the 17th Amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators). However, to start the conversation about the utility of potential reforms I thought it might be interesting to return to some of the Founders’ thoughts on who should have the most control over members of Congress: the states or the representatives’ constituents.

One interesting insight into this question is a debate over whether members of the new “national legislature” should be compensated by the states or the new federal government. The following deliberations come from James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.

Supporters of letting the states provide compensation argued that there were different standards of living throughout the country and that individual states would be the best judges of a salary. A less benign argument claimed that the interests of the poorer states would be different than those of the “old States” and the latter should not have to “pay the expenses of men who would be employed in thwarting their measures and interests”.

This rationale that Congress would be nothing more than a battleground for the naked interests of individual state legislatures was rejected by the rest of the Convention.  Edmund Randolph (VA) argued that “if the States were to pay the members of the National Legislature, a dependence would be created that would vitiate the whole System. The whole nation has an interest in the attendance & services of the members.” James Wilson (PA) “thought it of great moment that the members of the National Government should be left as independent as possible of the State Governments in all respects.” Alexander Hamilton (NY) concurred and “was strenuous against making the National Council dependent on the Legislative rewards of the States. Those who pay are the masters of those who are paid.” Alexander Hamilton distinguished between “the feelings and views of the people – and the Governments of the States arising from the personal interest and official inducements which must render the latter unfriendly to the General Government” (italics in original).

The aforementioned comments are derived from the debate about pay for the House of Representatives. What about the state-based Senate whose members were originally chosen by state legislatures? An amendment to have Senator’s salaries funded by the states was rejected by the Convention.  James Madison (VA) argued that this would make the Senate “mere Agents & Advocates of State interests & views, instead of being the impartial umpires & Guardians of justice and general Good.”

The debate over pay is only one aspect of the Founder’s vision for state representation in Congress. However, it shows that they envisioned a national legislature that would rise above the parochial interests of individual state legislatures and deliberate on a common good for the whole country. The House was designed to respond to the needs of its citizens, rather than individual state legislatures, and even the state-based Senate was expected to be objective when considering conflicts between states.

Anti-Washington Resolutions from States are Nothing New

States are feeling emboldened in light of the 2010 elections. Increased amounts of Republicans, particularly Tea Party backed victors, believe they have a mandate to oppose the Obama administration. Part of this is a belief that the president and the Democratic 111th Congress were too activist in their policy making. The other part is an underlying trend of states pushing back against what they believe are federal encroachments of state autonomy.

States are engaging in debate on a broad range of issues that can affect federalism, such as a “repeal” amendment, repeal of the 17th Amendment, and repeal or non-implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Some states are addressing numerous federalism issues simultaneously. For example, Blogger Craig McDermott has started a catalogue of all the anti-Washington resolutions debated in Arizona. An industrious person in Virginia could probably do the same for that state. Virginia Delegates Mark Keam and Ken Plum tweeted and editorialized about the utility of such resolutions while they were being debated.

Once passed these resolutions or constitutional amendments are forwarded to Washington. Known as memorials to Congress, the practice has predated the founding of the Republic.  The memorials are not binding on a state’s delegation, but they do provide some sense of the attitudes of states toward federal policy action.

Federalism Issues in Memorials

The 112th Congress is not unique in attracting memorials from states on federalism issues. I recently collaborated on a research project with Justin Gollob of Mesa State College that analyzed the content of memorials to Congress from 1987-2006. Most of the memorials addressed an intergovernmental issue. However, we isolated memorials that addressed the general topic of state-federal relations in the American system.

Not surprisingly, most of the memorials dealt with issues of unfunded mandates, federal preemption of states and generalized appeals to state autonomy under the 10th Amendment. The following two excerpts from Memorials were representative of the resolutions:

“Resolved by the Senate of the State of Kansas, That the Senate urges the United States Congress not to enact any laws or authorize the adoption of rules and regulations which would impose mandates upon states and local units of government therein without providing full funding for such mandates….”

“Resolved by the House of Delegates, the Senate concurring, That the Congress of the United States be hereby requested to pay greater heed to the clear restrictions placed by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution on the powers of the federal government….”

Recurring Federalism Issues (1987-2006)

Memorials that appealed to the spirit of the 10th Amendment often called for a Federalism Summit that gained traction during the mid-1990s. During this period several states also attempted to change to Constitution to allow states to initiate Constitutional amendments, thereby bypassing Congress. The ostensible purpose of this change would be to create a new federalism amendment to protect states from what they believed were encroachments of their power. Interestingly, there were few calls for increased federal transfers to states. Consequently, block grants and a return to federal revenue sharing were not popular topics of Memorials.

As the table below indicates, these federalism memorials appear to come in waves. The mid 1990s were a period where state criticism of  the federal government reached a critical mass.

Federalism Memorials by Session of Congress (1987-2006)

State officials shared a bipartisan sense of displeasure with the federal government during the 1990s. It remains to be seen whether the current wave of anti-Washington resolutions also crosses party lines or only comes from states with insurgent Tea Party movements in their state legislatures.

For more on the research please see our article in State and Local Government Review. For more on the methodology please see the Policy Agendas Project and the Pennsylvania Policy Database Project at Temple University.