“(W)ithout power and independence, a town may contain good subjects, but it can have no active citizens.” That was the conclusion of Alexis de Tocqueville after touring a youthful American Republic in the early 1830s, as recorded in his classic Democracy in America. Today we are engaged in a renewed debate about the authority of governments closest to the people.
On July 16, by a vote of 223-200the House of Representatives voted to strip the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the authority to allow communities the right to determine their broadband futures. Republicans voted 221-4 in favor.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler 60 Republicans insisted the federal government shouldn’t interfere with the 20 state laws that either prohibit or severely inhibit municipally owned broadband networks. “Without any doubt, state governments across the country understand and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.” A similar letter signed by 11 Republican Senators asserted, “States are much closer to their citizens and can meet their needs better than an unelected bureaucracy in Washington, D.C… State political leaders are accountable to the voters who elect them…”
The Republican rationale is that state legislatures should be given deference over Congress and federal agencies because they are closer, more attentive and more accountable to their constituents. The same reasoning should lead Republicans to agree that city councils and county commissions should be given deference over state legislatures and state agencies. But it doesn’t.
The Senate letter warned, the FCC “would be well-advised to respect state sovereignty.” But Republicans apply the principle of state sovereignty so inconsistently that it’s hard to call it a guiding principle. On July 15th, the day before Republicans loudly proclaimed their allegiance to states rights the House voted overwhelmingly to make permanent a ban on the right for states and localities to tax our Internet bills the way they tax our phone bills. Their legislation would also overturn existing laws in seven states. The collective loss of state revenue will exceed $500 million a year. Texas alone will lose $350 million.
Then there is the issue of whether the price of products sold on-line should include sales taxes equal to those paid by local stores. In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that states could not compel on line vendors without a physical presence in that state to collect sales taxes, unless Congress gave permission. In May 2013, the Democratic Senate voted to give them that permission. House Republicans refused. Loss of state and local revenue for 2013 was estimated at $1.7 billion. For those who may be unaware, the issue at hand is not whether we should pay taxes when we buy goods on line. Almost all states require us to do so. The question is whether on-line vendors must, like brick and mortar stores collect those taxes.
In 2006, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), exasperated by the Republican Party’s hypocritical stance on “states rights” asked a Special Investigations Division (SID) to examine legislative actions since George W. Bush took office after a campaign that insisted that with his party in control the federal government would not “impose its will on states and local communities.” The SID found “a wide gulf between the pro-states rhetoric of Republican leaders and the actual legislative record”. It cited 57 instances of Republican-approved bills preempting state authority.
One of those occurred in 2002 when the Republican House voted to prohibit states and cities from demanding competition in broadband services. Using language eerily similar to that used recently by Republicans to justify their refusal to allow the FCC to require states to promote broadband competition, 6 organizations representing state and local officials maintained, “state and local officials – those closest to understanding and meeting the needs of our citizens” should make such decisions. Republicans were unmoved. Continue reading