Editorial: “Nullification” as campaigning strategy


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Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate for the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has yet again provided her Democratic opponents with more rhetorical fodder to fill enough television advertisements and mail fliers from the Quad Cities to Council Bluffs. The Daily Beast uncovered a video of Ernst speaking at a forum conducted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, in which she expressed support for the concept of nullification, wherein states can choose not to enforce or “nullify” federal laws.

“You know we have talked about this at the state Legislature before, nullification. But, bottom line is, as U.S. senator, why should we be passing [sic] laws that the states are considering nullifying? Bottom line: our legislators at the federal level should not be passing those laws … We are way overstepping bounds as federal legislators …”

The rhetoric may be blustery, but Ernst has shown sympathy throughout her legislative career to pro-nullification attitudes. As the Huffington Post’s Igor Bobic uncovered, Ernst cosponsored a resolution to the Iowa Sensate that would have affirmed that “the state of Iowa hereby claims sovereignty under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States over all powers not otherwise enumerated and granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States.”

Ernst also supported an attempt by Iowa Senate Republicans to allow the state to ignore mandates from the EPA concerning “national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants for reciprocating internal combustion engines.” And, just last year, Ernst cosponsored an amendment that read “the Iowa General Assembly’s refusal to recognize or support any statutes, presidential directives, or other regulations and proclamations which conflict with the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and which are expressly pre-empted by the rulings of the United States Supreme Court.”

Nullification, which, it should be noted, is unconditional under the Supremacy Clause, which grants federal laws the power to supersede state ones, has an ugly history in the United States. As Ben Jacobs at the Daily Beast points out, it was used by defenders of slavery to argue that any federal attempt to abolish the practice could be nullified by the states that eventually constituted the Confederacy. The same argument was trotted out in defense of federal attempts to stamp out Southern Jim Crow.

This isn’t to suggest that Ernst endorses any of these odious ideas, but latching herself onto a practice such as nullification is much more troubling than an embarrassing sympathy with a discredited constitutional philosophy.

Nullification is part of the destructive trend in American life of worshipping the supremacy of state hegemony at the expense of federal power: seeing America as a confederation of states that make up a country rather than country composed of a confederation of states.

At best, this philosophy has been used to cripple the efficiency of the federal government when it comes to matters such as environmental regulations and food-safety standards. At worst, it’s been used to justify some of the darkest practices in American history. Ernst is asking the citizens of Iowa to entrust her with being their representative to the federal government. To appoint someone who supports a practice that atrophies it to the detriment of its constituents would be foolish.

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