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Congress Overstepping on State Turf, Some Say

The federal government is seen as defying GOP tradition on issues such as business and security.

November 24, 2005|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled Congress, in a departure from the traditional GOP support for states' rights and limited federal rule, has been moving on a number of fronts to curtail state and local powers over matters important to business groups and advocates of tighter national security.

The recent moves by Congress have begun to provoke objections even in states that are socially conservative and have pro-business governments.

"It does appear that Congress is becoming increasingly unplugged from the states," complained Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. "It's a real growing source of frustration for both Democratic and Republican governors."

States have traditionally set their own rules for issuing driver's licenses, but Congress this year imposed the first national requirements for licenses, in what lawmakers described as an effort to thwart terrorists.

States have sought to play a major role in approving sites for liquefied natural gas terminals, saying they can respond best to local environmental and safety concerns. But Congress this year gave federal regulators final say over those projects, overriding objections from states, including California.

And Congress this year nullified the laws in more than a dozen states that said auto rental agencies could be held liable for accidents involving their vehicles. The federal law said the agencies could be sued only if they were negligent or acted criminally.

In all three cases, President Bush signed the measures into law. Just after winning the 2000 election, Bush, a former Texas governor, had assured other governors during a meeting at his Texas ranch: "While I believe there's a role for the federal government, it's not to impose its will on states and local communities."

Before the current Congress finishes its work next year, it may extend federal authority into other areas.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are angry that the Supreme Court said this year that states and local governments could use eminent domain powers to seize private property for commercial development. Legislation before Congress would strip economic development funds from any state or local government that tried to use that authority.

Lawmakers are also proposing to limit the number of gasoline blends that states can require to reduce smog. They are considering national standards for elections, possibly requiring, for example, that voters present a government-issued ID to cast a ballot.

And lawmakers are debating a federal measure that would preempt stronger state laws -- including one in California -- that require companies to notify customers of data security breaches.

"When I got to Washington three years ago," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former Tennessee governor, "one of my biggest surprises was to find that Republicans who get to Washington appear to be just as bad as Democrats in coming up with big ideas, taking credit for them and sending the bill to governors and mayors."

Michael Bird, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who has been monitoring Congress for about two decades, said this Congress had produced "the most rampant amount of federal preemption" that the group had ever seen.

Lawmakers who have supported some of the measures say they are necessary to protect the free flow of interstate commerce and to ensure national security, areas that traditionally have been federal responsibilities. They also say that in some cases, such as with efforts to stop identity theft, a federal law is preferable to a patchwork of state laws that drive up business costs and hurt the economy.

"Republican support for the 10th Amendment is no less today than it was when our members took power in 1994," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), referring to the amendment that says that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution ... are reserved to the states."

The new federal requirement on driver's licenses, which says applicants must prove they are legal U.S. residents and lays out what documents constitute proof, was prompted in part by the fact that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had obtained driver's licenses, which they used as identification for travel. "I am gob-smacked that any local bureaucrat attempts to defend his little fiefdom in a system that gave terrorist killers driver's licenses," Ueland said.

Huckabee is among a number of governors who were upset with the driver's license legislation, saying it would impose new costs on states and calling it unreasonable "to assume that states are equipped to perform a national security function.... I don't think there is a governor in America who believes entry-level DMV workers should be the folks you put front and center in the battle against terrorism."

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