The Politico reports that states are attempting to “nullify Obama efforts” by declaring various federal laws unconstitutional while asserting their rights as states to refuse enforcement or implementation of laws that have duly passed the Congress with the president’s signature. According to the article, such nullification efforts have attempted to thwart the federal government’s purview over issues such as the right to keep and bear arms, whether illegal immigrants should be able to obtain driver’s licenses, and whether states should be forced to implement Obamacare. Progressives tend to view nullification as a dangerous tactic designed to undermine the ability of the federal government to streamline the passage of progressive policies.
Yet, the nullification movement that is currently taking place across the country is not a political tactic designed to circumvent our republican system of government. In fact, nullification was a critical part of our political system envisioned by the founding fathers to be an important check on the power of the federal government. Consequently, they assigned very specific powers to the national government and, as stated in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, “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.” The founders never would have given the new federal government absolute power over the states or the people, and while there are checks and balances built into the Constitution within the framework of the Senate and House, the most important check on the federal branches of government was nullification.
Progressives oppose nullification more than conservatives simply because progressivism itself seeks to limit the checks and balances in our government. However, nullification does not necessarily favor one political party over the other, although the current nullification movement has been employed primarily by conservatives in order to check what they believe is the Obama administration’s overreach in areas such as national health care. In fact, both conservatives and progressives have challenged the federal government’s power to enforce regulations based on the Tenth Amendment. For example, some progressive groups have attempted to fight the government’s attempt to check on the status of illegal immigrants by declaring certain locations “sanctuary cities.” Despite examples where states have been successful by employing nullification methods, the Supreme Court has largely rejected the premise that states have this inherent power (of course, the government tends to get very defensive whenever its own power is threatened.) Some historians and constitutional experts disagree with the position of the courts by stating that the Constitution would not have been ratified had the states believed that they were surrendering their sovereignty to a central power, a situation they had just ameliorated by declaring their independence and defeating Great Britain in the revolution. They cite a wide range of historical precedents such as Thomas Jefferson’s 1789 Kentucky Resolutions to buttress their case.
In the final years of the Obama presidency, the debate over nullification will escalate as the full impact of Obamacare is felt more broadly across the country. Considering that a majority of Americans now oppose Obama’s national health care program, including an increasing number of Democrats, the ability of the federal government to coerce the states into offering Obamacare is in question. In regard to immigration and gun control, the government has taken an aggressive tone by threatening states with legal action. One senses that we are on the precipice of an historic tug-of-war between the states and the federal government, a battle that will ultimately be determined by the 2014 and 2016 elections, the degree to which states are able to individually or collectively defy Obamacare, and the power of the government or the Supreme Court to compel the states to implement an unpopular program. The Obama administration is likely to be the victor, as the Republicans themselves are bitterly divided over whether Obamacare should be defunded. Moreover, any nullification efforts by the states would be challenged in the courts and overturned by a government-friendly federal judiciary. Not only will the Republicans need to win the Senate in 2014, but conservatives will need to pick up additional seats in state legislatures throughout the country in order to build additional momentum and political capital for a showdown with the federal government.