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Opinion: Columnists

Washington is divided because it has abandoned federalism

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Photo - From top right: James Madison, fourth president and an author of the Federalist Papers (Image via iStock); bottom left, U.S. postage stamp honoring Alexander Hamilton, another Federalist Papers author and later first secretary of the Treasury (iStock); John Jay, another of the Federalist authors and later first chief justice of the U.S., in 1794 portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart (portrait hangs in National Gallery of Art; Image via Wikimedia Commons). Background Image: Title page of The Federalist, Volume 1, as published by John Tiebout in 1799 (Image via Library of Congress). (Collage: Washington Examiner)
From top right: James Madison, fourth president and an author of the Federalist Papers (Image via iStock); bottom left, U.S. postage stamp honoring Alexander Hamilton, another Federalist Papers author and later first secretary of the Treasury (iStock); John Jay, another of the Federalist authors and later first chief justice of the U.S., in 1794 portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart (portrait hangs in National Gallery of Art; Image via Wikimedia Commons). Background Image: Title page of The Federalist, Volume 1, as published by John Tiebout in 1799 (Image via Library of Congress). (Collage: Washington Examiner)
Opinion,Congress,Philip Klein,Columnists,Senate,Liberalism,Federalism,Federalist Papers

It may sound pedestrian to point out, but it’s critical to restate why it’s so important that our nation is called the United States of America, and not simply America.

The full name emphasizes that the Founders viewed the nation not as one monolithic entity but as a union of sovereign entities delegating limited powers to a central government.

The basic constitutional architecture still remains, and it's frustrating for those who want to augment the role of the federal government in people's lives.

To preserve this balance, the Founders put a number of checks in the U.S. Constitution, most notably creating the Senate, which allows for equal membership from every state, thus preventing states with larger populations from running roughshod over the interests of smaller ones.

The concept of federalism has eroded substantially since the nation’s founding, in no small part due to those who appropriated the concept to defend the brutal institution of slavery and injustice of racial segregation.

Yet the basic constitutional architecture still remains, and it's frustrating for those who want to augment the role of the federal government in people’s lives.

This month, the issue bubbled up again after the Economist ran a chart demonstrating how much more liberal major U.S. cities were relative to the national average.

Jonathan Cohn, a liberal policy writer at the New Republic, wrote that the chart was “a reminder of a fundamental problem with our democracy, one that’s baked into the constitutional order. I’m talking, of course, about the United States Senate, where the apportionment of two seats for each state can give rural states disproportionate power — power that comes at the expense of urban states, the ones with lots of the left-leaning cities.”

He went on to note that the power of smaller states in the Senate “puts liberalism at a political disadvantage.”

The important point to remember is that the United States was never intended to be a pure democracy, but a representative republic. Originally senators were elected by state legislatures as a way of making sure that state interests were protected in Washington — a check that eroded with the passage of the 17th Amendment allowing for their direct election.

In Federalist No. 32, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “An entire consolidation of the States into one complete national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts; and whatever powers might remain in them, would be altogether dependent on the general will. But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States.”

In Federalist No. 45, James Madison explained, “The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security.”

This philosophy was reflected in the Constitution, which granted only limited, enumerated powers to Congress and left everything else up to the states and the people.

In Federalist No. 62, Madison addressed the structure of the Senate specifically, writing that “the equal vote allowed to each State is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty. So far the equality ought to be no less acceptable to the large than to the small States; since they are not less solicitous to guard, by every possible expedient, against an improper consolidation of the States into one simple republic.”

He went on to explain, “Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation.”

In other words, the Founders made it intentionally difficult to pass major legislation at the national level that would trample over the desires of smaller states.

There has been a lot of handwringing in recent years about how divided Washington is, and how it’s difficult for the parties to come together on anything. But the reality is that the states are divided among themselves.

The architecture of the Constitution offers a natural solution to this problem. Instead of trying to solve every issue at the national level, power should be shifted back to the states. Those states whose residents are willing to pay higher taxes for more government services should be free to do so, as should states whose residents are willing to forgo government benefits in favor of lower taxes. Under such a system, instead of bitterly hashing out every issue in Washington, Congress could be focusing on a limited range of issues.

It’s clear that liberals don’t see things this way. But it should be no surprise that their efforts to impose one-size-fits-all solutions across the nation encounter so much resistance.

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Author:

Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner

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