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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: States often have to share powers with federal government

Textbooks sit on the shelf at a high school in Birmingham, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/For The Washington Post)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one power that is only for the states.

The acceptable answers include a range of powers or services – education, police, land use and driver’s licenses – generally thought of as under state or local control. But they aren’t completely free of federal influence.

The framers did not all agree on the role of government, Professor Lawrence Hatter of the Washington State University History Department said. But they inherited British political thought that was deeply suspicious of centralized power.

“They were less interested, in general, in deciding which powers to reserve to the states than they were in ensuring the federal government did not accrue too much power,” he said in an email.

Education? It’s the state’s paramount duty, and local school boards are elected. But the U.S. Department of Education has an $80 billion budget for 2023, and President Joe Biden proposed raising that to $90 billion next year in the budget he proposed Thursday, to pay for programs that touch everything from pre-kindergarten to college.

Police? Law enforcement is often the top expense for cities and counties. But the FBI investigates and enforces federal laws, and often is involved in joint operations with local law enforcement. The U.S. Justice Department also investigates whether local departments have “patterns and practices” that violate the rights of some citizens, as Wednesday’s announcement of the review of the Louisville, Kentucky, department demonstrated.

Land use? A project that has the support of local and state officials can still run afoul of the Endangered Species Act or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Driver’s licenses? Things like age limits, renewal rates and proficiency tests are left up to the state. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, the federal government’s Real ID requirements made Washington and some other states change the makeup and appearance of their licenses.

Driver’s licenses are often a main form of identification for airplane travelers and those seeking access to federal facilities.

Some states only issue them to applicants who prove they are legal residents. Washington, which doesn’t have that requirement for its standard licenses, expanded its “enhanced license” program after several years of legislative debate. Last December, however, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pushed back the requirement for producing “Real ID” for air travel from this May 3 to May 7, 2025, in the fourth such extension since the law was passed in 2005.

The Framers of the Constitution were split on how they thought government powers should be dispersed, said Professor Ann Ostendorf, chair of Gonzaga University’s History Department. They had to create a living government that could be changed as circumstances required or the new government would fail.

Their current government under the Articles of Confederate was failing after less than a decade because it didn’t have a good mechanism for figuring out questions like the distribution of power.

“There was not one ‘framer mind’ – they disagreed with each other,” she said in an email. “Distribution of power changed over time because it had to. New issues, inventions and ideas arose that did not exist in 1790 and so later Americans had to take them within their own context to serve their own needs.”

President George Washington’s first cabinet had only four members, Hatter noted: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. President Joe Biden’s cabinet has 23 members: 15 department secretaries plus eight directors or administrators of large federal agencies or key policy concerns.

When the Constitution was written at the end of the 18th century, one of the main functions of a nation was making war, which was becoming more expensive, making the power to tax was important, Hatter said. But the original federal government for the United States didn’t have that power. The leaders of the new nation agreed the federal government needed to be able to raise revenue, but debated how.

The Civil War was an important moment in the growth of federal power, he added.

Until the Civil War, only the states could directly tax people. The federal government raised revenue through customs duties and selling land in the West taken from Native Americans.

We wouldn’t expect our economic, technology child-rearing or hygiene choices today to be like they were in 1790, so why would we expect the organization of our government to be the same, Ostendorf said.

The answers that are accepted as correct on the naturalizaton test didn’t exist when the Constitution was written, Ostendorf said. There was no education system, law enforcement or driver’s licensing in 1790, but as they were invented, they became situated in the government.

“And in each historical moment when that happened, it was no longer about what the framers thought, it was about what Americans thought made sense at the time these new things were considered,” she said. “Governments are always about compromise.”