Vogel: New States Rights

Jun 7, 2017

By 1787, when they met in Philadelphia, delegates knew they needed to fix or replace the Articles of Confederation. The balance of power between the thirteen States and the Federal Government wasn’t working. Congress couldn’t pay its debts from the Revolutionary War and couldn’t force States to contribute their share.

A weak Federal Government couldn’t, for example, stop states like New York from passing laws that imposed heavy duties on merchants from New Jersey and Connecticut.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson lead coalitions of delegates who fiercely debated how much power the new Constitution should grant to Congress and what to do if State Laws conflicted with Federal Laws.

Fast forward two hundred and thirty years and we see this same tension between the States and the Federal Government playing out in things like the laws that regulate voting and govern the sale of marijuana.

One area where authority has traditionally been vested in the Federal Government has been in foreign affairs. It makes little sense for an individual state like Vermont to negotiate a separate treaty with Germany or decide it won’t send its residents to fight in the Middle East.

But we live in strange times.

One day after President Trump backed out of the Paris Accord, thirty Mayors, three governors, including Phil Scott from Vermont, and more than a hundred businesses said no. This growing coalition which is now up to nine states is planning to submit a plan to the United Nations pledging to meet the target for greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Accord.

I’m struck by how this action by Vermont and other States comes out of a tradition that dates back to our earliest history as a nation. I’m likewise struck by how unprecedented it is for States to get directly involved in international treaties.

And for a change, I’m surprised to find myself now supporting States Rights - a phrase usually associated with things like Jim Crow laws.

It reminds me of a quip from Mark Twain who said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”