BENNINGTON — The enduring power struggle between the federal and state governments is reaching yet another fever pitch, according to two top Vermont officials.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan and Secretary of State Jim Condos spoke at Bennington College about the tug-of-war between the federal government and states’ rights, which predates the Constitution in 1789 and was the overarching issue during the convention in Philadelphia that produced the nation’s governing document.
During a public forum Thursday at the college’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Donovan referred several times to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which “delegates to the states” those powers not specifically granted the federal government.
“If you look at it historically, we are having in this country right now a whole new debate on federalism, that interaction, that tension between the federal government and states’ rights,” Donovan told an audience of students, faculty members and area residents.
Those conflicts exploded over the issue of slavery and ultimately led to the Civil War.
Today, states’ rights issues include fights over voter registration and voter fraud, immigration law and enforcement, pollution regulations and the Trump administration’s attempts to curtail or ban Muslims from certain countries from traveling to the United States.
The Secretary of State’s office is currently fighting demands from a federal commission looking into alleged voter fraud for detailed information on voters, Condos said. The Trump administration’s Election Integrity Commission has asked for voting histories, Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers and email addresses.
“They wanted literally everything,” Condos said.
His office has refused to release the information.
Condos said he relies on the Vermont Attorney General’s office to back up any challenge of federal policy or regulation — in court, if necessary.
“He [Donovan] protects my backside,” Condos said.
Condos said Vermont has been one of the most progressive states in expanding access to voter registration.
Other states have enacted laws that make it more difficult for certain groups — the poor, minorities, young people — to register to vote. Those laws are seen as a check on voter fraud, but Condos said numerous studies have shown voter fraud is a minor problem across the country.
Current states’ rights disputes involve so-called blue, or Democratic-dominated states, like Vermont, resisting efforts pushed by a Republican Congress and Republican President Donald Trump.
That is a different scenario from what prevailed for the past 40 to 50 years, Donovan said. Previously, states’ rights questions were most often focused on the rights of minorities.
More recently, Donovan said, Republican-controlled state governments have taken the federal government to court over the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Donovan said he is careful “not to demonize” federal departments or employees, “who have a job to do” and have been given marching orders from Washington. Federal departments partner with his office in dealing with a range of problems and issues.
The Vermont Attorney General must determine whether it is better to lobby through state and federal lawmakers for a change in policy in Washington, join a coalition of like-minded states to lobby or take the federal government to court, or whether it is worth a legal challenge in which Vermont files suit on its own.
The key is determining what is in the best interests of the people, not what is politically expedient.
Condos advised any students who might consider running for political office to always “keep in mind that you can never please everybody all the time.”
There will be criticism, Donovan said, but office-holders should listen to it and respond with civility, because “that can also be helpful in how to do the job.”
With the Trump administration in power, he said, “we are dealing with one big civics lesson right now. And in a way that’s a good thing.”
Donovan said the U.S. Constitution, with its deliberate checks and balances, “is a living, breathing document that is really showing its strength in 2017.”