BY MIKE WISER
The principles of federalism should not be a casualty of the September 11th attacks, Rep. Chris Cox ’77 told an audience in Austin East Friday.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 50 students gathered for his talk entitled, “Saving Federalism from Conservatives and Liberals Alike,” Cox said federalism was simply the doctrine of allocating power to the proper spheres of government.
“A lot of what has passed for a debate about federalism has really been a debate about something called state’s rights,” he said. “Federalism has been used as a synonym and a stand-in for states’ rights. It ought not to be that way.”
The California republican added that federalism is about “an allocation of responsibility and not a competition.”
Cox pointed to a number of areas in which the federal government has overstepped its proper role to the disadvantage of all involved. Congress, he said, has found it necessary to pass criminal statutes that are almost exact duplicates of existing state laws.
“The need for this is not just suspect, but it is logic stood on its head,” he said.
With thousands of federal laws to enforce, Congressman Cox argued, the FBI has been chasing down carjackers instead of focusing on terrorists and solving other crimes that were traditionally reserved for the federal government.
In responding to the threat of terrorism, Cox is not convinced that the federal government should be the sole player.
Cox said that he did not think that the Federal government was any more competent to handle security issues than local or state agencies that are sometimes subject to charges of ineptitude. “Even if you want to limit yourself to the four corners of September 11th,” he said, “you can pick up any newspaper in America right now and read some pretty hair-raising tales of incompetence in our intelligence services.”
The Constitution, for Cox, guides the principles of federalism. Like a children’s soccer team, he said, government works best when everyone sticks to their position instead of bunching around the ball.
The powers allocated to the state and federal governments, Cox said, were allocated with a purpose. “If you do not have a system in which the respective spheres of government are drawn, then there isn’t any limit to either. There isn’t any limit to the extent that government can grow,” he said. This balance protects liberty.
“Neither are the states or the federal government sovereign,” Cox told the audience. “The people are sovereign.”
The position given to the federal government, according to Cox, provides it enough authority to respond to terrorism.
“Constitutionally the federal government is given almost all of the power when it comes to defense of the country, so if that is what people are clamoring for, the Constitution has no objection,” he said.
Rep. Cox also emphasized the importance of protecting civil liberties in the wake of the attack.
“I don’t find in the current national emergency or any we have faced throughout our history justification for having a different standard at war time than we have at any other time,” Cox said.
Specifically, he said that he was concerned about the proposed legislation that would have provided indefinite detention for aliens.
Cox criticized the idea of a “sunset” clause in the legislation, which would make changes to wiretap and other laws last only a few years. He said either they are powers the government should have and it is a mistake not to make them permanent, or they are powers the government should never have.
Cox seemed positive about the future of federalism, but denied that there had been a recent renaissance. While welfare reform and limiting unfounded mandates were positive steps, he said that Congress still does not stick to its own sphere.
“We think we, through bribery, can obtain what we cannot do outright,” he said. “We have the power to, so we make federal resources contingent on fulfilling the federal requirement.”
The fourth-ranking republican in the House also pointed to what he called a “one-way ratchet” in the courts. Even if nine out of ten judges read the law narrowly, he said, the tenth, more activist judge can then change the meaning. The other nine judges, who respect precedent more, will then feel bound to follow the activist judge.