“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, ....” — Preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
What is our country a union of? It is a union of states, the “United States.” States, such as our own beloved Wyoming, are not an afterthought or occasional feature of the plan of union but its central feature. As the Constitution lays out the fundamental plans, rules, and limits for the federal government, what it says about states is not a huge number of words but is still clear.
Article 1, Section 8 enumerates the powers of Congress, primarily over commerce (money, bankruptcies, post offices, roads, patents, copyrights, and trade relations) and over the military (declaring war, dealing with pirates, armies, militias, and the Navy). Section 8 also includes the phrase “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States ....” As general Welfare has no clear definition or limits, it provides the sole Constitutional justification for most of our modern federal government. Without that clause we would not have Social Security, Medicare, COVID-19 bailouts, or most other federal programs.
Article 1, Section 10 prohibits states from engaging in foreign policy, issuing money, or controlling their own international trade. Congress must consent to agreements between states. Article IV requires mutual respect between states and gives federal guarantees to every state of a “Republican Form of Government” and protections against invasion and insurrection.
The 10th Amendment, the last in the Bill of Rights, says: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Given the limited explicit powers delegated to the United States and the relatively few prohibitions of powers to the states, the clear intent of the 10th Amendment is that states should retain considerable powers and considerable sovereignty.
What is the actual current division of resources and powers between the federal government and state governments? The federal government will spend more than $6 trillion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and spends $4.5 trillion in a normal year. State governments spend about $1.5 trillion in a normal year, a third of what the federal government spends. Much state spending is actually controlled by the federal government because the federal government provides a third of state budgets.
State programs for education, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, interstate highways, and many other areas are effectively controlled by the federal government as federal money comes with thousands of pages of laws and rules controlling it. Does a dollar become more powerful if we send it to the federal government which then sends it back? Just the opposite. The cost of complying with federal regulation of K-12 education may be close to the number of dollars received, so most of those dollars are wasted.
The Constitution envisions a limited federal government but the federal government has now taken over and intruded on every possible area of state, private, or personal authority. We have federal departments controlling agriculture, education, employment, health care, housing, and many other areas of our lives. We come to the Mountain West for its land and then find that the federal government has kept ownership of much of our land, not parks like Yellowstone but the regular land that we could use for many other purposes. The federal government owns 48% of Wyoming and that may be 38% too much.
Restoring authority to our states enables 50 different approaches to problems like education and health care. Fifty different experiments can find answers much better than one monopoly system. A failing federal government is a single point of failure. Residents of a state doing poorly can move to another state. Fifty different approaches allow people to sort themselves out by the kind of government they prefer. A California resident may want to pay more taxes for more government services than a Wyoming resident.
Restoring authority to states is an increasingly urgent issue because our federal government is massively failing. Federal finances are hopeless, with a deficit exceeding three trillion dollars this year. I’ve been getting postal mail two to three weeks later than normal. The IRS is months behind in processing tax returns. Normal and basic functions of the federal government are no longer reliable.
Congress is unlikely to propose Constitutional amendments to curtail its powers. Article 5 of the Constitution provides the only remedy for the states, “on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments.” It is time for 34 or more of the 50 states to call a new Constitutional Convention to propose amendments to limit the powers of the federal government. Fifteen states already support a convention. Any approved amendments would then need to be ratified by 38 or more states before taking effect.
A Bill of Limits on the federal government should restrict federal powers to clearly enumerated functions, restore state powers in areas usurped by the federal government, require balanced federal budgets, and limit federal taxing powers to a level appropriate for a much smaller set of federal responsibilities.
Government at any level creates risks to individual liberty and voluntary society. That said, I would much rather be governed in most things by my 580,000 fellow Wyomingites than by my 331 million fellow Americans.