Is America headed for a constitutional crisis? An
anti-Washington populist uprising? A few years ago, asking these
questions would have seemed absurd. Then came Colorado.
The Colorado state legislature has fired the first volley in
what may become the most heated political battle of the '90s. By
more than a three-to-one margin, it recently passed House Joint
Resolution 1035, claiming sovereignty over the federal
government. HJR 1035 is no less than a "Notice and Demand to the
federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective
immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of its
constitutionally delegated powers."
Now the Michigan legislature is preparing to follow Colorado's
lead. On September 20, House Concurrent Resolution 945 was
adopted by the House and sent on to the Senate. Representative
John Jamian (R-Bloomfield Hills), the House sponsor of the
resolution, proudly proclaimed, "We're saying to Congress: Quit
putting our money where your mouth is."
The prime object of the states' scorn is Washington's bad habit
of foisting new programs and spending upon the states. Hundreds
of these "unfunded mandates" are now on the books. If a state
resists a mandate, Congress often threatens to cut off funds in
other areas. For example, if states fail to meet federal
standards in testing school bus drivers, they could lose federal
What's happening is that states are re-asserting a right they
have always had. Before the original colonies ratified the
Constitution, they insisted that the Bill of Rights-the first
ten Amendments-be added. The 10th Amendment clearly states: "The
powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to it
by the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to
the people." Arguably, the Constitution does not grant the
federal government the power to do a host of things it now
performs or imposes upon the states.
The trouble with power is that whoever has it always wants more.
Despite limits built into the Constitution, Washington has
assumed ever more power over the past 200 years. In response,
Michigan's HCR 945 declares "That the Michigan Legislature
hereby asserts Michigan's sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment
to the Constitution of the United States over all powers not
otherwise enumerated and granted to the federal government by
the United States Constitution."
Colorado and Michigan are not alone. Tenth Amendment resolutions
have passed in six other states and are pending in many others.
All across the country, state legislatures seem to be in the
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" mood. As
ammunition, they are citing a landmark United States Supreme
Court decision, New York v. United States (112 S. Ct. 2408
(1992), in which the Court held that Congress may not commandeer
the legislative and regulatory processes of the states by making
them accept nuclear waste.
Some interesting ways have been proposed to put teeth in the
states' threat. One is for a state legislature to demand that
its congressional delegation appear before them at an annual
hearing, face-to-face and in front of cameras, to answer
questions about why they voted so often to place financial and
regulatory burdens on their own constituents. That 1993
recommendation of the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public
Policy was approved without dissent by the Michigan legislature
A more radical plan, suggested by Colorado state representative
Charlie Duke, calls for Coloradoans not to send to Washington
the taxes they would normally pay. Instead, the state's
taxpayers would mail their federal taxes to a
Colorado-administered escrow account. Then, if the Washington
politicians have behaved themselves, the money would be
forwarded to them. If not, the state would keep the money until
they shape up.
This is strong medicine, but then federal mandates are a serious
matter. They are bankrupting state and local governments and
threatening to turn the states into mere servants of Washington.
The Mackinac Center found that in 1993, for instance, the total
cost to Michigan taxpayers of federal mandates in the Medicaid
program alone was $95.3 million. That amount was no less than
one-third of the growth in state revenues for that year.
The move to assert state sovereignty promises to mushroom into a
crisis for the federal government if it refuses to live and act
within its constitutional boundaries. The states are not going
to "take it" much longer.