Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fool's Legislation

Like everyone else, I suppose I have been the victim of the occasional April Fool's Day prank; but being basically a somewhat dour person, I have never really taken much interest in the day itself or the silly customs connected with it. (I do find it mildly interesting that historians seem to connect its origin with the 16th-century change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar - but only mildly).

Unfortunately, however, it seems that April Fool's Day is increasingly becoming an all-year event in our peculiar political culture, but the consequences are much more problematic than mere pranks.

In Washington, we have the apparently permanent unwillingness of Congressmen to grow up enough to do that most fundamental function of a legislative body - pass an annual budget. Instead we have the ongoing soap opera of short-term "continuing resolutions," each passed under the imminent threat of a governmenal "shutdown" - precisely the kind of classic made-for-TV circus that nowadays takes the place of democratic deliberation and debate.

As if that weren't bad enough, here on the state level we have such inanities as proposals for a separate state currency. Even worse (because actually enacted into law), the state of Tennessee two weeks ago (almost April Fool's Day) passed something called the "Health Freedom Act," which declares it to be "the public policy of this state" that every person has the right "to refuse to purchase health insurance." Needless to say, this law has little to do with either "health" or "freedom," but a lot to do with the obsession in certain quarters with opposing - at any cost -the health insurance reform passed by Congress just a year ago (childishly referred to as "Obamacare" by its right-wing opponents).

To be fair, there is a legitimate debate about the constitutionality of that reform's provision requiring indiviudals to purchase health insurance. Sooner or later (preferably sooner than later), that question will find its way to the Supreme Court and a legal precedent will be set, one way or the other. In the interim, however, is state nullification of national legislation a rational answer?

It's not like we haven't been down this road before. This spring, we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which supposedly settled once and for all that we really are one country with a national government. In the run-up to the dissolution of the Union, the conflict between national sovereignty and the parochial interests of states was a constant theme - and not just in relation to slavery. It came up in "Federalist" New England in oppositon to the President Madison's (admittedly stupid) War of 1812. It came up again with a vengeance in the 1830s, when South Carolina sought to treat as null and void certain federal tariffs. Then, it was no less a southerner than President Andrew Jackson who, fulfilling his constitutional duty "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed," took on the nullificationists - warning them that the course they proposed to pursue would be "one of ruin and disgrace to the very state whose rights they affect to support."

Where is an Andrew Jackson now when we need his like again?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that nullification has arisen again as an issue, but it really should be small wonder. We are a long way from the Articles of Confederation, but the hegemonic tendencies of our current form of federalism have got to be checked somehow. The combination of executive privilege with massive misuse of the commerce clause have left the states with little real power beyond being breeding grounds for future federal officials and politicians.