As Federal Government Collapses, States Offer Solutions

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published March 28, 2024

The increasingly obvious incompetence of President Joe Biden is clearly a serious problem, yet many people see it as a one-off, easily solved if the Democrats can find a way to jettison him and run somebody else this fall, or if the Republicans can defeat him and win control of both houses of Congress.

Unfortunately, the rolling disaster that is our current federal government is much more than that. It is the inevitable outcome of a widespread, thorough rejection of the plain meaning of the nation’s founding documents. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s complaint that adhering to the First Amendment would “hamstring” the federal government is emblematic of this mentality.

The inexorable rise of Progressive politics since the end of the nineteenth century has steadily intensified the centralization of power in the federal government and a small class of people not subject to popular elections, authorized by a political Uniparty devoted to continual expansion of executive rule. This has created a regime that asserts a right to infinite authority.

The nation’s founding documents, by contrast, established the principle of federalism, in which authority over all matters not explicitly assigned to the federal government belongs to the states and the people. Progressivism reversed this, and now here we are. More than a century of unconstitutional actions in Washington, DC has evoked increasing opposition not only in public opinion but also, significantly, from state governments.

Among the most vivid examples of this reaction against the central government is the increasing interest in nullification of federal laws and regulations, in which states declare that federal decisions will not be enforced within their borders.

The states began this movement in recent years by ignoring federal marijuana laws. This was an insufficiently appreciated change in attitudes.

If there is one thing nearly every political faction in the United States has agreed on for the past two centuries, it is that nullification threatens the credibility and stability of the national government by undermining its authority. Chasing votes, campaign money, and potential tax revenue from cannabis sales, however, numerous states legalized or decriminalized possession, and then sales, of marijuana. The federal government stood aside and let it happen. The Obama administration, in particular, cooperated in this nullification of federal law.

Since then, states have become increasingly bold, culminating in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s moves to guard the state’s border with Mexico in defiance of the president’s complaints and direct interference.

Now a bill before the Tennessee legislature, SB 2775, the Restoring State Sovereignty Through Nullification Act, would establish an explicit process for nullification. The legislation would allow a federal law or policy to be declared null and void by the governor, by any state court, or by a legislative vote triggered automatically by any individual member, a petition of the executive or legislative branches of any 10 local governing authorities, or any group of 2,000 registered voters, as columnist Daniel Horowitz notes at The Blaze.

Horowitz makes the case for this process by pointing out that federal supremacy applies only to laws that fit within the enumerated powers of the federal government, which is precisely what is under debate in questions of nullification, and that judicial supremacy is a “dangerous myth” because “an elected state or federal official cannot promulgate, fund, or enforce an edict of a court that violates the Constitution” without violating his or her oath to uphold the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson summed up the case for nullification in his Kentucky Resolution of 1798, writing, “The government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers,” Horowitz notes.

Nullification is in fact central to the conception of the U.S. government, which I have described previously as veto power for everyone. Under the Constitution, each branch of the national government has veto power over the actions of the other branches, through votes in Congress, presidential veto authority, and judicial review. In addition, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments extend that veto power to the states and the people, respectively.

The Constitution explicitly limits the power of the federal government and gives all three branches, plus the states and the people through the Bill of Rights, the authority and responsibility to see that the government stays within those boundaries.

Veto power over actions taken by the federal government belongs to each branch of that government, and to the states, and to the people. Unless all agree on any action by the federal government, that action does not have rightful force of law according to the Constitution.

Under the doctrines of unbridled federal and judicial supremacy, the U.S. government has taken on so much power that it can no longer perform its basic functions, let alone do all that it has promised. History shows that an excessive concentration of power leads to the decline of civilizations. The Congressional Budget Office just released a report stating the federal debt will soon reach record levels as a percentage of national economic output, undermining the economy and severely limiting policy choices. We are accelerating down the road to government collapse.

Now, duly elected state governments are rightly pushing for decentralization and a return to rule of law, asserting their prerogatives under the nation’s founding documents. This is the one positive outcome of all the destruction wrought by the current regime thus far.

Photo by Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.