Ask a high school graduate about the design of the American government and typical answers will include the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, three branches of government and the Bill of Rights. Rarely will they know more than three or four amendments. One amendment that is often ignored is the 10th Amendment: “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.”
Departing from the principles underlying the 10th Amendment is causing a federal power usurpation in our country.
The word “states” means states like Idaho, which is an independent government. The federal government was formed when several independent governments agreed to give the federal government limited powers. These limited powers are found in the Constitution that the federal government agreed to live under. The Constitution is kind of like a contract between the federal government and the independent state governments that created the federal government and delegated limited power to it.
The 10th Amendment makes clear that the federal government is limited to those powers specified in the contract (the Constitution). All other powers are reserved to the states and their citizens. The concept is simple. If the states did not delegate a power to the federal government, the federal government has no power to act on the issue. The powers expressly delegated to the federal government are listed in the Constitution. So, how does the federal government nowadays pass so many laws and perform so many functions which are not found in the Constitution?
The checks between the branches were set up assuming that each branch would check the others. Over time the branches have failed to check one another (particularly the courts), and consequently, the federal government has usurped power not in the Constitution. The 17th Amendment further dealt a blow to protecting the states’ powers by eliminating the only true representation states had in their dealings with the federal government. This was accomplished by the direct election of United States Senators, rather than their selection by the state legislators.
The federal government also seizes power away from the states by creating laws that apply only if a state takes federal money. Cash-strapped states often take the money. But this approach is kind of like a bribe using federal taxpayer dollars. Yet courts have upheld this practice.
Federal power usurpers also like to ignore the strict wording of the Constitution. This helps them expand the federal government’s powers. I argue that the Constitution must be interpreted by its strict wording; otherwise, the law becomes whatever someone can twist it into. When the United States Supreme Court does this, five unelected lawyers can essentially create what some call “the law of the land” when in fact the Supreme Court is just supposed to interpret the law, not create it.
Stopping federal power usurpation starts with understanding how it happens so that we can do our part to stop it.