Asking “How High?” When the Feds Say “Jump!”

The federalist system we have in the United States makes a lot of sense. The national government takes care of the big issues, like defense, which are broad in scope; the states and local governments take care of smaller issues, like rules of the road.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. As we see in the call for a special session to deal with the state’s open container laws, our federal elected officials have little interest in practicing federalism.

To be fair, the federal government doesn’t have extensive power to command that states change their laws. However, politicians figured out long ago that they could use their spending power to, in essence, bribe states into following their wishes. They simply offer states a large sum of money, but demand that the states change their laws to meet federal wishes in return.

This is why the national drinking age is 18. Prior to 1984, different states had different ages for legal alcohol sales. That year, however, the Reagan Administration and Congress worked together to pass a law that threatened states with a partial cutoff of transportation funding unless they had a drinking age of 21. A 1987 Supreme Court decision said this was fine. We also see this type of thing happening in education, where states set standards and practices in order to meet national requirements to obtain federal funding.

The federal government is once again using the threat of a transportation funding cutoff to change state alcohol policy. Last year, Arkansas repealed its “open container” law under threat of losing some federal money. However, legislators did not leap high enough when the feds barked “jump!” They will have to meet in special session to ensure that state law meets the variety of federal stipulations that they missed last year.

Legislators appear to be fine with rushing to do the will of federal bureaucrats. Rep. Matt Pitsch, for instance, told Arkansas Matters that “our Senate is counting their votes. I was in there counting our votes, seeing who’s supportive. I’ve yet to find anybody that wasn’t. The sooner we fix it, the sooner we get that to build roads.”
No one is forcing state legislators to bow to the whims of the federal government on the open container law. They are willingly changing state laws because that is what’s required to get more federal money. On one level, it’s hard to fault them – “free” money in exchange for making a few alterations to the state code. But on another level it’s deeply disturbing. This practice undermines federalism and puts D.C. in charge of what should be state or local concerns.

I don’t see much defense for allowing open containers of alcohol in vehicles. I have no problem with legislators passing bill that ends this practice. However, I do have some issues with the federal government micromanaging state transportation laws in this way. It should be up to Arkansas legislators – and Arkansas legislators alone – to determine what laws govern alcohol and driving in the state.

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