Federal Government Bully
in State and Local Elections
Do you think your federal tax dollars should be used to influence the outcome of state and local elections? Would you mind if an administration bureaucrat flew to your city- at taxpayer expense and on behalf of the federal government- to campaign against a local candidate or referendum you supported? Should certain candidates in your local election have the stamp of federal approval, much like a newspaper endorsement? Are state and local laws valid only if approved by the federal government?
These are troubling questions raised by the latest assault on states’ rights in Washington. The Ninth and Tenth amendments make it clear that under our federal system, states retain full authority to craft their own laws. The federal government has only limited, express powers, and therefore can preempt state laws only in a very narrow range of federal matters. But in imperial Washington, states have become nothing more than glorified counties.
Consider the medical marijuana debate. Federal law currently prohibits the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) from using its huge advertising budget for partisan or political purposes. In fact, a broader law prohibits federal agencies in general from using taxpayer dollars to influence the outcome of local elections. The need for these laws is obvious if we hope to maintain any slight degree of federalism. However, if Congress passes a bill pending before a House committee, ONDCP will soon be exempt from the rules against politicking. It already blatantly ignored existing rules in recent months by sending representatives to Missouri and Nevada to openly oppose local medical marijuana initiatives. The message to local voters was very clear: do not dare pass a law that displeases your superiors in Washington. To do so was to risk an outright raid by federal agents to make sure the new law was not implemented, as we saw two years ago in California.
The issue is not whether one supports medical marijuana or not. The issue is whether Washington decides or local voters decide. For most issues, the Constitution leaves decision-making to the states. For most of the 20th century, however, the federal government has ignored the Constitution and run roughshod over state sovereignty. As a result, the centralizers of both parties in Washington cannot imagine a society not dominated by the federal government.
Those who favor strict drug laws should understand that federal preemption is a double-edged sword. For example, if a socially conservative state like Utah wanted to enact harsh drug policies to reflect its community standards, federal law could actually prevent the enactment of such policies. When the American people give up state and local authority over any issue, whether its marijuana, abortion, or gun control, they give up most of their power to affect policy. It’s far easier to influence, and hold accountable, state and local officials. Once the federal government takes the opposite side of an issue, however, good luck changing things.
The practice of allowing federal agencies to influence local elections certainly sets a dangerous precedent, and might lead to the labeling of “federally approved” candidates in both national and state elections. Exempting ONDCP from electioneering restrictions could be just the start. As one think tank director put it, “This would be like the IRS running ads against tax-cut proposals and the candidates that support them. Using public money to tell people how to think and feel about policy is the definition of propaganda.”