States’ Rights and States’ Wrongs

Last week, the Senate passed resolution H.J. 69 which rolls back Department of the Interior (“DOI”)

Also this month, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) acting chair launched the Economic Liberty Task Force with the aim of enacting reforming state level professional licensing practices.

These two actions may seem unrelated, but, in fact, they represent two Republican priorities: states rights and deregulation, which Republicans may increasingly find are in conflict. Managing this conflict could prove to be one of the more difficult aspects of the GOP having control of the federal government.

According to the author of H.J 69, Rep Don Young (R-AK), the DOI rules about when and how predators like wolves and bears could be hunted was an “overreach and the beginning of overreach on all federal lands.” Advocates see the nullification of the rule as a victory for states’ rights, and it’s true that there was some pushback against the rule from some Alaskans, but, much of the supposed rationale for rolling back the rule comes from scientifically-unfounded fears about predators like wolves and bears threatening the stocks of animals that many Alaskans hunt for subsistence.

Regardless of the reason, allowing states to override the DOI dictate hunting practices on land that is owned by the federal government and which has been designated as a reserve is a big swing away from federal oversight in favor of state control. The passage of H.J. 69 is not just a change of specific hunting rules, but also a change in how this land is managed, who is managing it, and for whom it is being managed. Putting Alaska’s priority of allowing unrestricted killing of certain animals above the DOI’s mission to “protect and manage the Nation’s natural resources” is a significant paradigm shift towards states’ rights.

On the other hand, the actions of the FTC on the issue of professional licensing is an unprecedented move towards curtailing the rights of state governments. Specifically, this rule seeks to limit state government’s ability to enact regulations to which the federal government objects. Professional licensing is almost exclusively the domain of state governments. This has led to a system where different states have different licensing procedures for the exact same professions and some states have licenses for professions for which there is no logical need to be licensed, like interior decorating. This maze of licensing is especially burdensome for military spouses who move frequently and often need to go through a complex, time consuming, and expensive process of getting new licenses for their same skills each time they move.

Up until now, the federal government has had no real means to address this issue because there is no legal mechanism for the federal government to interfere with state licensing procedure. Making this an FTC issue and launching the task force signals a significant shift in the federal government’s attitude towards state licensing. Whether or not this leads to policy actually limiting the ability of states to require licenses remains to be seen, but even the increased federal attention on state level licensing regulations is notable.

The Republicans have only just assumed power of the federal government and balancing states’ rights with the desire to deregulate has not been the most pressing challenge so far, but, as their time in power wears on, this conflict will likely come up again and again. So far, Republicans in power seem to be erring on the side of deregulation but still working for states rights. As federal regulations fall, many states are going to enact their own laws to keep some of those regulations in place. If the federal government repeatedly overrides these regulations, it will be hard for the GOP to use states’ rights as a plausible justification for other actions. Tracking federal policy with this conflict in mind will give a clearer picture of what the priorities of this Republican government truly are. It’s easy for the GOP to promote states’ rights when the state is doing something they agree with; it’s a lot harder to value states’ rights when states are doing something the GOP thinks is wrong.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.