D. Dowd Muska

 

A Government’s Got to Know Its Limitations

March 03, 2016

Local control, home rule, states’ rights, the laboratories of democracy. Good stuff.

But federalism can go too far.

Preemption, as described by attorney Paul S. Weiland, is the “simultaneous expansion in power of a higher level of government and reduction in power of a lower level of government.”

When Washington bosses around towns, cities, counties, and states, freedom-lovers bristle. But the consternation isn’t always warranted. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry recently approved a preemption that limits government and helps consumers.

The mere mention of a genetically modified organism (GMO) sends junk-science liberals stumbling for their fainting couches. No matter how many authoritative entities sign off on the safety and benefits of gene-spliced foods, the nuttiness persists. One of the most rabid moonbat movements underway today seeks to impose GMO-labeling requirements by state governments. But in D.C., the hysteria faces a dire threat.

Last year, Daryl E. Thomas, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Pennsylvania-based Herr Foods, told Congress that mandating “GMO labeling at the state level would create a patchwork of … regulations that would be virtually impossible for companies -- particularly mid-sized, family-owned companies such as ours -- to navigate.” So earlier this month, the Committee on Agriculture approved a measure, backed by Sen. Pat Roberts, (R-KS), to set “national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered,” allowing “the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended.”

Supported by “more than 650 farmers, cooperatives, agribusinesses, processors, seed makers, handlers, food and feed manufacturers, lenders, and retailers,” the legislation torpedoes the crusade -- already successful in the People’s Republic of Bernie Sanders -- to adopt state GMO-labeling laws. It faces an uncertain future on the Senate floor, but a similar bill has already passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin.

Federal bullying? Hardly. The U.S. food industry falls well within the scope of the Constitution’s commerce clause. Thomas noted that his relatively modest firm’s “products are distributed via 500 company-owned routes, 380 independent operator routes, and a network of brokers, wholesalers and distributors located throughout the 48 contiguous states.” Yes, the federal government is far too big. But a single, national standard for GMO labeling -- assuming the information is needed at all -- makes sense.

Besides, states launch preemptive controls, too. Last year, Texas removed the power of local governments to ban fracking. The legislation struck a reasonable compromise. As the Texas Tribune reported, municipalities and counties retain authority over “fire and emergency response, traffic, lights and noise … if such rules [are] ‘commercially reasonable.’”

In February, Alabama’s legislators and governor enacted a ban on local minimum wages. The smackdown was a response to Birmingham’s adoption of a $10.10-per-hour floor in a state that has no minimum wage, and is thus subject to the federal dictate of $7.25. Idaho is weighing a similar measure, which has passed the House, and awaits action in the Senate. During its now-adjourned legislative session, New Mexico considered a bill to strangle the City of Albuquerque’s proposed “Fair Workweek Act” in the crib.

Don’t be confused -- preemption doesn’t always involve rollbacks of trendy leftism. A state overreach worthy of federal scrutiny is Greg Abbott’s obsession with Iran. Lobbying the Texas congressional delegation to block the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the Lone Star State’s chief executive offered this absurdity: “So long as Iran is a threat to Israel, Iran is a threat to Texas.” But the deal went through, and in February, a frustrated Abbott declared that the “Texas Prohibition on Investment in Iran Act” remained on the books, and that it’s still “the policy of the State of Texas to prohibit investment of taxpayer dollars in Iran. These sanctions have and will continue to ensure that Texas does its part to prevent taxpayer dollars from aiding and abetting a country that is openly hostile to the United States and its allies abroad.” Sorry, governor, but notwithstanding your Bibi bromance, international relations is Washington’s bailiwick. As law professor Hoard N. Fenton wrote, “states simply do not have a role under the constitution in articulating and executing independent foreign policies.”

Preemption can be unnecessary -- e.g., the George W. Bush administration’s attack on Oregon’s right-to-die law. But in many instances, it’s a reasonable step to ensure that public policy occurs at the proper level. Local and state governments should understand the distinction, and know when it’s time to keep their hands to themselves.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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