On the Notion of Fair Weather Federalism

By Dan Cadman on August 24, 2017

Ilya Somin has written an opinion piece for National Review Online, "No More Fair-Weather Federalism", arguing that both liberals and conservatives should come together to halt federal efforts to force state and local governments to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts by withholding federal grant monies to sanctuary jurisdictions.

Somin basically argues that undertaking such actions violates the principle of federalism, and that doing so is to embark on a slippery slope: today sanctuaries, tomorrow gun control. There are so many logical fallacies in the article that I hardly know where to begin.

First, it's worth noting that there is no intrinsic right for state and local governments to put their hands into Uncle Sam's pockets in order to pluck out federal taxpayer monies for their own uses. That which Uncle giveth, so may Uncle take away.

In the context of federal grants to state and local governments, it's true that the courts have held that withholding such funds cannot be unduly coercive, that such a sanction must have a logical connection to the purpose of the grants. In that context, the federal government has successfully held interstate highway funding hostage to such things as the lawful drinking age and speed limits established by states.

Using similar logic, though, if there isn't a nexus between withholding funds from state and local governments when those governments willfully impede enforcement of federal immigration laws, then I can't imagine when such a connection might successfully be shown.

Second, in our unique federal system, the Constitution makes clear that with a few exceptions reserved to the federal government, most powers are reserved to the people and to the sovereign states. But immigration is one of those things reserved to the federal government by the Constitution (as, by the way, gun rights are reserved to individuals under the second amendment), and it was done because our founders recognized that doing so was — and is — key to preserving the republic.

Imagine if each state were able to enact its own border laws and establish its own standards on what makes an alien (or other states' citizens for that matter) entitled to enter or subject to removal. Each state would in essence then be a nation-state, and not a part of any larger union.

It is precisely that kind of willful go-my-own-way attitude that ensured the failure of the Articles of Confederation and nearly killed our republic before it even had a chance to develop. And it is that self-same cavalier, and short-sighted, dismissal of unique federal powers where immigration is concerned that we are seeing in various sanctuary jurisdictions.

From my point of view, it is "fair weather" federalism when state and local governments want to avail themselves of the security and protection that comes with being a part of the union when it serves their purposes (such as, perhaps, in the midst of nuclear attack threats from bizarre "hermit kingdoms"), while the rest of the time the assignment of powers clearly laid out in the Constitution be damned.