Whatever Happened to States’ Rights?

Good recent New York Times op/ed discussing preemption, the trumping of state law by federal law and a favorite tool of the current administration to further close the courthouse door on consumers. Among other observations (such as how the Bush Administration issued rules preempting state banking laws – over the objection of all 50 states’ banking superintendents – and thus helped pave the way for the subprime mortgage crisis):

[T]he federal rule should be a floor, not a ceiling. It should set a minimum level of rights, not stop states from doing more to protect their citizens.

For years, the federal government used pre-emption [to set a minimum level of rights]. Civil rights acts swept away discrimination at the state level, and workplace safety laws upgraded conditions in factories and mines. Conservatives opposed many of these federal laws on the principle that they were trampling on “states’ rights.”

Since the conservative ascendancy in Washington, many of these same people have stopped praising states’ rights and have begun burying them – not to protect citizens’ rights, but to take them away. The Bush administration and its Congressional allies have helped their friends in industry by enacting weak environmental, health and consumer regulations – and arguing that they wipe out more robust state protections.

Most Americans may not know about the supremacy clause, but they do seem to understand that they are increasingly vulnerable. Weeks before the 2006 elections shifted control of Congress from the Republicans to the Democrats, 79 percent of respondents in an Opinion Research poll said big business had too much influence over the Bush administration. As Democrats and Republicans contemplate what kind of “change” voters are looking for now, they can start with the idea that both the federal and state government need to do a better job of protecting their citizens.