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Pythons, Federalism and Mobility

pythonflagBack in high school I sat through more than one government class.  In my freshman year of college I went through the motions during a year-long course on the history of the United States.  While sitting in those classrooms I wasn’t really investing in the information, I was enduring it.  I memorized facts, names and dates that would need to later be regurgitated on an exam.  Despite the quality of my schooling I must admit that I failed to process the information as anything other than raw data.  True internalization of the information didn’t really happen for me.  Part of the reason I missed so much was (honestly) a general lack of interest.  For no good reason I found the history of places like Persia and Greece to be much more intriguing than that of my own country.  History is often presented by academia as a string of names, dates, documents and military conflicts, each of which is summed up in a few paraphrased and often opinionated paragraphs.  The impacts and long-term meanings of the events are not often taught in a way that encourages students to understand the information as it relates to their own lives.  The end result is that many of us fail to fully connect the dots on how the events that occurred before our birth actually impact our existence.  Teaching is an art form and most educators who have the ability to regurgitate facts lack the talent to make it relevant and interesting.  As a result many students frequently purge the information after its usefulness on a test is complete.  I do not fault my teachers for this.  I take responsibility for my own actions, including the concerned attention I did not pay to my own nation’s history.  During my earlier years I never fully took the opportunity to explore how the decisions of the founding fathers were supposed to impact the life I am living more than two hundred years later.  The past several years, however, have changed all of that in a way I never expected.  If someone had told me many years ago that it would be pythons and boas that suddenly caused the processes of government to be immensely relevant I would have rolled my eyes and wandered off.

I’m not a complete noob, mind you.  I have long understood the electoral college, the functions of the three branches of government, the importance of “checks and balances” and the general processes involved in making a bill into law.  But there was a long period of my life when I openly stated that it didn’t matter which individuals were in which positions in the state and federal government, that they had no direct impact on my day-to-day life.  Because it was instilled in me to do so from a young age I have always voted in the elections; local, state and federal.  I wanted my candidates to win but never really expected my life to go one direction instead of another if the results didn’t go my way.  I was naive.  I was wrong.  My eyes, today, are wide open and what I am seeing leaves me horrified, disappointed, disenfranchised and angry.

More than 200 years ago (in 1787) the Founding Fathers of our nation came together to rewrite the original Articles of Confederation, the result of which was the creation of our Constitution and what we all know to be the United States of America.  Many of the original authors of the Constitution were strongly motivated by a seemingly simple theme: limit the size, scope and power of the federal government, leaving the majority of the power in the hands of individual sovereign states.  Embracing the concept of  federalism, our founding fathers recognized the need for a central government in addition to each state’s autonomous government.  There was (and is) a lot of debate over how much power the federal government should have.   The United States, by Constitutional design, is a federation of states.  This means that each states governs itself in addition to the presence of a federal government.  Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution defines the scope of the federal government.  More specifically, it and the Bill of Rights are designed to limit the scope of the federal government’s power over the states.  That which is not the defined in the Constitution falls to the individual states to decide.  Placing strong limitations on the power of the federal government was intentionally done by the people who founded this nation.  The control the federal government was supposed to exert over the lives of citizens day-to-day activities was, by design, limited.  That power was intended to remain with the individual states.  However, largely due to two clauses in Article I, Section 8 (the so-called Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause) the federal government has piled up a long history of overstepping its Constitutional authority and increasing its power over the states.  This has been happening for a long time (since the end of the Civil War) and has been progressing very quickly since the mid-1930’s.  This accumulation of power by the federal government has been happening for so long that the overwhelming majority of us simply take it as normal.  Why would we question it?  It has always been this way, hasn’t it?  But understand this very clearly:  it is not supposed to be this way.  The federal government should not be making decisions that the states are Constitutionally obliged to make on their own.  I believe pet (reptile) ownership and invasive species law are excellent examples.

The 10th amendment to the Constitution should have sealed the deal on the where the bulk of the power in our federation resides.  It states, “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.”  To summarize, Article I, Section 8 and 9 define the scope of power for the federal government and the 10th Amendment ensures that power not specifically given to the federal government is in the hands of the states.  Take a minute and read Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and the 10th Amendment.  It will take less time than it has taken you to read this far in my post.  Unfortunately, several of the clauses in Article I, Section 8 are sufficiently vague that they have been twisted and mangled by both Congress and the courts in order to seize more and more power at the federal level.  Reptile owners are experiencing the result of this first-hand.

Each of the fifty states is an entity that embodies the needs and priorities of the individuals who live in them.  They are wonderfully diverse in geography, climate, natural resources and population.  Each state is unique and the needs of one are not the same as the needs of the next.  Because of their diversity it is not possible for the federal government to appreciate the impact of its decisions on individuals and communities within a state.  In fact, it is not the job of the federal government to make such decisions.  I direct you once again to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.  The question of whether or not certain pythons and boas are a danger to the environment of a certain state is a state decision, not a federal one.  I suggest that the federal government’s decision to involve itself is an overstepping of its authority.  Unfortunately, through more than a hunderd years of power grabbing (the creation of the Department of the Interior and two of its agencies, US Fish & Wildlife and the US Geological Survey) the federal government has given itself the power to control the states in this matter.

One of the most simple and interesting aspects of federalism that I have come to embrace is the concept of mobility.  Because the power is supposed to reside in the hands of the state governments it is a citizen’s right to simply move somewhere else if the state enacts laws that are incongruous with their personal goals and/or beliefs.  Put more simply, if you don’t like what your state is doing, leave.  You can move to a state that is more closely aligned with your needs as a citizen.  However, when the federal government oversteps its authority and enacts federal law it leaves citizens with nowhere to go.  Because federal law is an umbrella that casts its shadow of control over all the states we are, in a very real sense, trapped.  There is nowhere to go to be free of the decisions of the federal government.  This should infuriate python owners in Vermont and South Dakota.  Their liberty is at risk because of a perceived problem almost two-thousand miles away in the southernmost portions of Florida.  For the python-loving residents of South Dakota the only way to rid themselves of such federal tyranny is to leave the country.  While moving from Florida to Virginia is readily do-able for most of the population, moving from Florida to Italy is not.  For me, this is the part I fear the most.  If laws banning pythons and boas are enacted at a federal level there is literally nowhere to go.  Mobility, which is a mechanism to free myself from the decisions of an individual state, will have been stolen from me.

The desire to increase the size, scope and power of the federal government is viewed as a positive by those who embrace statism.  Statists, whose actions and philosophies are most frequently aligned with what today is the far-left Democratic party, seek to increase power of the federal government in virtually all aspects of a citizen’s life.  It can be seen in large scale events like the government taking an ownership stake in corporations, government run health-care and social security.  It is also evidenced on a smaller scale in the desire for the federal government to impose a national ban on the importation and inter-state trade of pythons.  Why does the federal government need to impose rules on states who have no capacity to be affected by the suggested spread of the Burmese python (North Dakota, for instance)?  Why does the federal government simply not leave these decisions in the hands of states that deem themselves at risk?  This was the intent of the Constitution, was it not?  The answer can be summed up in one word:  power.  For statists, the acquisition of power at a federal level is taken at every opportunity in order to create a larger, stronger and more powerful central government.

As a side note:  The acknowledgment that pythons may one day have the ability to spread into the lower 1/3 of the United States is one piece in the highly political argument over global warming.  If the federal government concludes that the Burmese python will spread because of warming trends predicted by the USGS then it is yet one more piece of evidence that global warming is a real, human-caused, condition.  Such proof will be used to support future environmental legislation.  Do not think for a moment that this issue is just about pythons.  The trickery engaged in by people with political agendas takes on incredibly veiled forms.

Through their own local politicians the states have contributed to the increase of the power of the federal government by accepting the federal govenrment’s money to fund in-state projects.  It’s a nasty behavior, really.  By getting federal funding for state initiatives the states are getting their funding from all American taxpayers even though there is no benefit to the other states.  This smacks of abuse of power and should ring loud in the ears of reptile owners as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida (a Democrat) and House Representative Dennis Meek of Florida (also a Democrat) both introduced federal legislation to ban the importation and interstate transport of pythons (S373 and HR2811) in an effort to acquire federal tax dollars to fund the restoration efforts in the Florida Everglades.  There are also added fringe benefits for both of them.  Had the legislation passed their next election campaign would have heralded them as the “candidtate that saved the Everglades from the scourge of the Burmese python”.  Another shining example of this is the recent deal made by Senate Democrats with Ben Nelson (Democrat from Nebraska) to get the other 49 states to pay for the Medicaid expansion costs in Nebraska …forever!  The taxpayers of Virginia should be venomously opposed to the idea of paying for hospitals in Nebraska.  If you’re not, check the mirror for your lobotomy scar.

As states accept more and more federal funding they give more and more power to the federal government.  Over time they have become dependent upon the flow of money and, as a result, are often held hostage because of it.  For example, in 1974 the federal government enacted the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which federally mandated the speed limit on the nation’s highways to 55 mph.  In 1986 Nevada changed the speed limit to a 3-mile stretch of highway to 70 mph.  Within a few hours of doing so the federal government revoked their highway funding.  The state changed the limit back to 55.  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Maximum_Speed_Law).

In the end none of this talk about the abuse of federal power really matters.  And that saddens and frustrates me.  The federal government has acquired the power to determine the fate of pythons and boas in the pet trade.  Right or wrong the power is there.  Nothing in the near future is going to change that.  If the unthinkable happens and pythons and boas are added to the Lacey Act as injurious species you can rest assured that there will be legal challenges that play out over a span of years.  But the fight over the fate of pythons and boas is not about science.  It’s about politics.  Are Burmese pythons truly a threat to the lower 1/3 of the United States?  In the end it doesn’t really matter.  This is about special interest groups, campaign contributions, pet projects, and government power.  Pythons are being sold as creatures with the power to completely destroy ecosystems, hunt humans and spread disease.  None of it is true.  But facts don’t matter …and that is a shame.


Colin Weaver


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