The shape of government in the United States is changing. Interest groups who wish to push their agenda increasingly choose to fight one big campaign instead of fifty smaller ones. Concurrently, the federal government uses the purse to coerce state compliance with federal policies.
Sometimes the federal government should intervene. The Supreme Court's decision this past week that overturned California's Proposition 8 (a state ban on same sex marriage) exemplified the importance of judicial intervention and of having a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The majority should never be able to deny the minority their rights. For example, a majority of this country is women; they should not have the legal prerogative of denying men the vote. Indeed, twentieth century battles over denying rights to people because of their gender, race, or ethnicity are culminating in the struggle to ensure that all people have the right to marry the person of one's choice regardless of gender.
Some issues cross state boundaries, e.g., polluting activities located in one state may contaminate the air or water in another state. In such a case, federal legislation is necessarily preferable to state legislation.
Other times, the case for federal intervention is more problematic. The federal government, for example, has just dramatically revised school lunch standards. Schools are locally operated and traditionally states have overseen and regulated the schools. However, the federal government funds as much 90% of the school lunch program. States whose schools do not comply with federal guidelines risk losing that funding. States and municipalities prefer to fund activities (including the schools) with federal tax dollars even at the price of federal control instead of funding their activities with state and local taxes.
School lunches should not contribute to the growing (pun intended!) of childhood obesity. Winning the battle of the waistline in DC appears quicker and easier than winning thousands of battles, one in each school district. However, federal regulations will not change behavior. Parents, teachers, and the village that it takes to raise a child all must cooperate to effect in most children the behavioral changes associated with the child following a healthier diet. In other words, an apparent shortcut to reach this desirable goal will actually fall far short of its intended efficacy, an outcome that often happens when interest groups turn to the federal government to achieve quicker, easier results.
Still other issues mix federal and state issues. Gun control should begin with repeal of the Second Amendment right to own and bear arms, as I have previously argued (cf. Ethical Musings: Gun control and the Second Amendment). However, issuing permits to own or to carry a concealed weapon is arguably a state matter rather than a federal one. In our highly mobile nation, the federal government could usefully arrange a clearinghouse for states to exchange information. Banning large magazines, other military munitions, and military weapons is also a federal issue because it involves both interstate commerce and imports.
Unfortunately, the strategy of shifting power to the federal government carries a hidden price tag: its significant erosion of representative democracy. In general, the fewer people each representative represents, the better that representative democracy will function. State legislators each represent fewer people than do members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Concomitantly, keeping more issues at the local and state level affords citizens easier access to government, diminishes to some degree the influence of moneyed interests, and may give people a greater sense of owning their government.
Unnecessarily large government that erects barriers to civic participation, in other words, inevitably diminishes human dignity. Voting, participating in public discourse, and otherwise participating in governmental processes is an indispensable civic responsibility. Abdicating that responsibility is equally wrong. The person who does not vote, does not participate in public discourse, and does not otherwise engage with the political process surrenders some of his/her autonomy and becomes a little less human. Christians have a moral duty to participate in civic affairs.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 inserted the federal government into questions of voter qualification, voter eligibility, election district lines, etc. At the time, the Act was vital for restoring the vote to people whom the majority had systematically disenfranchised.
Times have changed. More African Americans are registered to vote, and actually vote, in Mississippi than are whites, a dramatic reversal from fifty years ago. Requiring states with historic patterns of discrimination that no longer exist to continue to obtain federal approval for proposed election law changes no longer makes sense. The Supreme Court was right.
However, times have changed. Politicians are now erecting new barriers to voting rights, barriers premised on criteria other than race, e.g., ability to get to a poll during working hours, possession of a government issued ID, etc. Some of the changes may make prima facie sense, at least until one looks more deeply. North Carolina will require voters to show a government issued ID, accepting some IDS issued by a university but not others. North Carolina has no history of voter fraud that this requirement will solve. North Carolina also has many poor people without government issued IDs who must now obtain one or de facto be barred from voting. Meanwhile, North Carolina has moved to reduce the hours polls are open while dramatically broadening absentee balloting in ways that almost encourage voter fraud.
Americans need a new Voting Rights Act, or, better yet, fifty new Voting Rights Acts, laws in all fifty states that encourage voting, civic participation, and address the forms of discrimination that the currently powerful seek to use to preserve their status. Perhaps we should pass a law fining any citizen eligible to vote who fails to register or fails to vote, though I suspect that mandatory civic participation would be no more effective or popular than are mandatory healthy school lunch menus.