The Constitution's long neglected 10th Amendment - vesting most power in the states and the people, rather than in the federal government - is making a comeback, thanks to the conservative movement and some U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The 10th Amendment couldn't be clearer: "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."
This is a hair-raising concept for liberals. If it's taken as seriously as Americans take the First Amendment (freedom of speech, association, etc.), it would be the ruination of the enormous centralized bureaucratic state built by liberals. Federal dictates on welfare, education, tobacco, and the environment simply don't pass muster under an honest reading of the 10th.
Restoring 10th Amendment significance to the Constitution is, obviously, a boon to states' rights - a guiding principle of the conservative movement. This elates many congressional Republicans, but it has not stopped them from also pushing policies which entrench federal power at the expense of state governments.
A recent Wall Street Journal report explains that "the GOP Congress has proven just as creative as its Democratic predecessors at stealing power from the states and centralizing it in Washington. The Republicans are more willing to give states control of social programs, but, states' defenders say, the GOP is also more likely to interfere in issues of crime, morality and business regulation."
These "meddling conservatives" are offended that some states pursue liberal policies. So the GOP-led Congress imposes mandates to prevent that. But by so doing, they make hypocrites of themselves - or they're just plain cynical - when they champion states' rights.
In fairness, Congress has ushered in some genuine "devolution" of powers from Washington to the states. Welfare overhaul is one example, and legislation promising relief from federal mandates is another - though neither goes as far as governors would like.
Even so, these are welcome changes not only from a constitutional perspective but from a practical one: State governments are better able than federal bureaucrats to tailor programs to fit citizen needs. But there's still a strong tendency in many other areas to use states as mere administrative units of the federal government.
Sure, state governments are given block grants to administer programs, but only if they follow the parameters set forth by Congress and federal bureaucracies. That hardly complies with our Founders' concept of federalism.
Republicans must resist the temptation to tell states what to do with the money. It's either states' rights - where states get to make decisions their own way - or it's not. Conservatives, at least those who claim states' rights as a tenet of their philosophy, must let states go their own way, even if it's not always the right way.