While provocative bills aren’t particularly unusual in state legislatures, so many have been offered by conservatives in Oklahoma this year that GOP leaders have established a special committee to handle what is now a major category of business: measures to combat the federal government’s influence in the states.
“This gives a platform for what I think are issues that are concerning to a lot of Oklahomans, and that’s this continual overreach of the federal government,” said House Speaker T.W. Shannon.
Similar states’ rights panels have been formed in Texas and Utah, which are also controlled by the GOP, and have been proposed in Alaska, Missouri and Tennessee.
President Barack Obama’s re-election last year, while a victory for the Democrats, has made the anti-federal cause a growth industry in states dominated by conservative Republicans. When legislatures reconvened this year, a flood of bills came forth to block enforcement of federal laws, deny authority to federal agencies, and circumvent federal policies related to firearms, religion, the environment and, most of all, health care. Across the country, dozens of bills have been introduced to nullify federal firearms laws alone.
Even though many measures are legally questionable and may never come to a floor vote, the special committees are providing more public attention to sovereignty issues that were sidetracked in previous years.
In Oklahoma, “There’s going to be healthy debate and discussion about what the limits of the federal government are and also about where state sovereignty begins,” said Shannon. “I think that’s a worthy discussion to have.”
In marble halls normally bustling with suit-and-tie legislators and lobbyists, witnesses wearing camouflage, jeans and ball caps now file into committee rooms for sessions. Usually somnolent hearings are now sometimes raucous.
When the Oklahoma states’ rights committee recently passed a bill that prohibits cities and counties from adopting any environmental recommendations in the United Nations’ Agenda 21 plan, many of those in attendance burst into applause.
Some Democrats say they don’t know whether to be alarmed or amused.
“Where is Jay Leno when you need him?” said Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, one of 29 Democrats in the 101-member state House. “If I didn’t know this was reality, I would think this committee was something out of a movie.”
At a recent hearing, Democratic Rep. Kay Floyd, who was an administrative law judge before winning election to the Legislature, expressed concern that several bills the committee passed appeared to be unconstitutional. Republican Rep. Gus Blackwell, the author of a measure contravening part of the federal health care law, responded: “The Supreme Court may go on and make another decision. I don’t care.” His comment drew nods of approval from those in attendance.
The crowd of about two dozen spectators at one recent hearing included tea party members and other grassroots activists, some of whom took time away from work and traveled from towns around the state.
Don Spencer, a truck driver for an oil field supply company, hustled to the statehouse after work to hear the panel discuss amending the constitution to make gun possession easier.
Of the others in attendance, “you’ll only see them at meetings dealing with constitutional issues,” said Spencer, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and an empty holster that shows he’s not allowed to bring his handgun into the Capitol. “People are realizing they can’t control the government creeping into their homes, and the more they learn, the scarier it gets.”
Also on the committee agenda are measures barring local police from aiding the U.S. military in detaining Oklahoma citizens under the federal War Powers Resolution, prohibiting judges from considering foreign law, and amending the constitution to limit the Legislature’s ability to regulate firearms.
Some critics dismiss the sessions as little more than political grandstanding for conservative voters in a state where Obama failed to carry a single county in either of his presidential races. They warn that any measures passed would only run up the state’s legal bills in hopeless court challenges.
Under Supreme Court precedent, a state doesn’t have the power to block the enforcement of federal law inside its borders, said Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma who served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Byron White.
Most such measures “do not merit serious comment — at least, not after the Civil War,” Thai said.
But many conservatives insist the panel can help the state find ways to push back against the federal government.
Oklahoma’s new Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt has bolstered the cause by challenging the tax penalty provisions of the federal health care law, filing suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and joining a multi-state challenge to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
“We’re a country of citizens and not subjects,” said Republican Rep. Lewis Moore, chairman of the committee. “It is our fault for not acting as citizens all the time.”