Do We Still Live in a Federal Republic?

Hans von Spakovsky /

The Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation kicks off its “Preserve the Constitution” series on Friday, September 14, at 11:00 a.m.

The attorneys general of four important states that have been leading the fight against an intrusive federal government—in areas ranging from immigration to health care to Medicaid—will talk about “State Sovereignty and Federalism.” The panel will include:

The event will be moderated by Edwin Meese, 75th attorney general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan and the chairman of the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies.

The Framers of the Constitution designed a federal republic in which a central government with strictly limited powers was balanced by state governments with plenary powers. Although the post–Civil War changes to the Bill of Rights—the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—limited state powers in some important respects (such as denying the power to discriminate on the basis of race), they did not alter the basic design by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and others of a limited national government.

Through later changes, including the 16th Amendment (national income tax) and improper encroachments by Congress that were abetted by the judicial branch, the past 100 years has seen an exponential growth in both the size and power of the central government. Much of this growth invaded the sovereignty of state governments and imposed massive, uncompensated costs and burdens.

This has resulted in a huge administrative state and a regulatory behemoth that far exceeds the boundaries and parameters of the central government as envisioned by the Framers. It has also led to our current dilemma in which an economically unsustainable federal government is threatening not only our prosperity but our very liberty.

The question we face today is whether federalism is still alive in our modern republic. Can the size and scope of the national government be brought back within constitutional limits? What can the states do to stop the invasive expansion of the central government into areas of traditional state control? How dangerous is this to our continued survival as a sovereign nation?

General Meese began this debate in a speech in 1985 to the American Bar Association in which he called for a jurisprudence of original intent and criticized the judiciary for allowing Congress to stray outside its limited constitutional powers. Things have only gotten worse since then. It is crucial that we engage ourselves in the task of putting the federal genie back in the bottle of limited federal powers before it is too late.