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March 07, 2005

Maximum Wages and Overriding State Laws

The Santorum amendment to permanently prevent states from regulating wages for tipped workers just illustrates a breathtaking assault by today's conservatives, both in Congress and in the courts, on the ability of states to create higher labor standards, stronger consumer regulations or tougher anti-discrimination laws than the federal government. Forget any rhetoric about "states rights" or federalism, just think about this list:

  • Congress just passed class action "reform" legislation that overrides local class action laws and forces most class action lawsuits, even when suing under state law, into the federal courts.
  • The Bush NLRB has supported lawsuits to strike down state laws banning businesses receiving state funds from using that money to bust unions.
  • Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, school districts that fail to meet federal standards must provide tutoring to their students, but the federal government won't allow the schools to provide the tutoring themselves.
  • The FDA has sought to block attempts by states to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
  • Congress passed an "anti-spam" law that was designed in back rooms to preempt tougher state laws to rein spam in and protect online privacy.
  • Bush's Office of the Controller of the Currency has adopted a federal preemption rule that states have no authority to regulate the mortgage practices of national banks to fight predatory lending or other consumer abuses.
  • The Congressional "privacy" law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, was renewed in 2003 specifically with the goal of overriding stronger state privacy protections for banking consumers, such as that passed in California.
  • Bush's administration imposed a rule prohibiting states from using unemployment insurance funds to create paid family leave for families.
  • The Bush Transportation Department forced New Jersey to repeal a state anti-corruption rule intended to end political contributions by contractors hired by the state for highway projects.
  • States are now barred from requiring local hospitals to provide information about abortion and contraception services to their patients.
  • States seeking to legalize medical marijuana are facing federal lawsuits to overturn those laws.
  • The conservative majority on the Supreme Court held that states could not protect the right to a jury trial in employment disputes; instead, employees could be forced by federal law to have their cases heard by employer-designed private arbitration panels.
  • The Supreme Court held that local rules requiring that public and private fleet operators purchase low-emission vehicles were preempted by the Clean Air Act.
  • The conservative Court majority struck down New Jersey's law banning discrimination against gays by the Boy Scouts and struck down Michigan's affirmative action program for undergraduates.

    From Congress to the Presidency to the Supreme Court, conservatives in the federal government have sought to paralyze state government powers -- the one exception being state government power to engage in discrimination, the defense of racism being the sum total and only meaning of "states rights" in the conservative lexicon.

    Now, of course, progressives often seek strong federal power, but then we never claimed otherwise. The problem with conservative language around federalism is their hypocrisy and the reactionary goals of their use of federal power.

    For progressives, their version of federalism has been that the federal government creates a MINIMUM standard of labor, civil and consumer rights, with state and local governments free to enhance those standards to further protect working families. The progressive metaphor has been of states as "laboratories for democracy", where they have the opportunity to experiment and pioneer new policies that, if successful, are incorporated into a new round of enhanced federal minimum standards applicable to all states.

    Conservative thinkers have come into power with the explicit goal of disabling state laboratories of democracy to benefit their corporate contributors and benefactors. The clearest goal is to kill existing progressive legislation, but the subtler goal is to hobble progressive experimentation and new ideas at the local level. If such ideas can never be tested at the state or city level, it will be that much harder to point to their success in selling the broader public on enacting them as national legislation.

    In the area of the minimum wage, for example, it is precisely the existence of higher minimum wage laws at the state and local level -- and specifically the overwhelmingly support demonstrated last fall for creating a higher minimum wage in Florida -- that is pressuring even Republicans to talk about raising it at the national level. Kill the ability of states to even legislate in the wage area and much of that pressure will disappear.

    Posted by Nathan at March 7, 2005 08:45 AM