Not only could the federal government's vast resources distort the tenor of debate within a state, it would also force out-of-state taxpayers to underwrite political campaigns that have no impact on them.
That message has fallen on deaf ears at the Denver office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is poised to assist in the campaign against Amendment 44. That measure, on Colorado's November ballot, would legalize possession by adults of as much as 1 ounce of marijuana.
Setting aside the merits of Amendment 44, the DEA's decision to raise $10,000 to hire a professional campaign manager is a heavy- handed use of federal power. Jeff Sweetin, the special agent in charge of the local office, acknowledges that the notice seeking an experienced pro to run the campaign was sent from a Department of Justice e-mail account.
Federal officials are free to offer their opinions about the legality or the wisdom of state political controversies, and that bully pulpit can often sway public opinion. But when agencies organize formal opposition to local or state ballot measures, they're interfering in the local political process. And where would it stop?
At least some federal lawmakers have acknowledged the potential for abuse. Three years ago, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would have, among other things, blocked the DEA from using its advertising budget to work against state ballot measures. (The Senate did not pass the bill and it died in 2004.)
The National Taxpayers Union and the American Conservative Union, among others, persuaded House members that if the DEA could campaign against initiatives that would liberalize drug laws, then there is no principled reason the Environmental Protection Agency couldn't spend money lobbying against property rights protections or the Department of Justice coordinate a campaign for tougher gun controls at the state level - just to cite two possible examples.
Letting federal agencies become political activists in one area invites them to take sides on a host of others. That's why we hope the DEA will abandon this campaign - and that next year, Congress will enact legislation that would prevent any federal agency from pursuing this sort of mischief.