Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Unfunded Mandates...and States' Rights

I thought Firewolf had an interesting article regarding a pending piece of federal legislation that would mandate that the states issue "more uniform driver's licenses." The goal of the legislation is to make it more difficult for potential terrorists to obtain fraudulent identification. The AP story says that the state governors are up in arms about the potential costs and increased "headache for law-abiding residents" who may have to deal with a whole new slew of requirements to get licensed to drive.

For once, I agree with the state governors on an issue and disagree with Firewolf; not because I think the goal of stopping terrorism isn't worthy, but because the federal government has decided to do it through an unfunded mandate. Let me explain:

An unfunded mandate is a requirement imposed on the states by the federal government without any federal funding to pay for it. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that the cost of unfunded mandates to the states will reach around $34 billion this year...money the federal government insists be spent, but that Congress doesn't want to include in its budget. In my view, if the federal government wants something done, and the federal government thinks that what it wants done is within its purview, and the federal government thinks its what the people want, then the federal government ought to step up to the plate, pass legislation, collect the money needed and do what needs to be done.

On the other hand, if the federal government wants to do something that's NOT in its purview (say, regulate driving within a state), it shouldn't be able to use unfunded mandates to circumvent the constitutional limits of its power. These mandates are generally enforced, if necessary, by threatening to withhold funding in other areas if the states fail to comply. According to the Congressional Research Service Summary, in this case, if any state fails to comply, the agencies of the federal government will be prohibited from accepting that state's driver's licenses or ID cards for any purpose.

If the federal government wants to have uniform nationwide ID cards, Congress should have to legislate uniform nationwide ID cards and justify them to the public, and pay for them in the federal budget, not "backdoor" it through a federal unfunded mandate to the states, who will have to pass the costs on to their citizens.

UPDATE -- NIF is reporting that I am not alone in my dismay at the tactics used to get these national IDs...

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