Steve Haycox: 'Federal overreach' will be a standard applause line in 2014

Steve Haycox

It appears that "federal overreach" is going to be a prominent feature of the upcoming political season. Three of the major candidates running -- Gov. Sean Parnell, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan -- have indicated that they intend to make the most of the notion in their respective campaigns Clearly, they hope to paint their opponents as weak sisters in standing up for Alaska's rights, and too happily in league with federal programs in Alaska that inevitably carry federal oversight and constraint.

The system of dual sovereignty the framers of our federal Constitution constructed is subtle and nuanced. Fearing centralized power, and appreciating the legitimacy of local self-determination, the founders hoped both to limit federal authority and preserve local autonomy. So states have sovereignty; the Constitution provides that powers not assigned to the federal government are reserved for the states. The question, of course, is which are the powers reserved to the states, and when do we know the federal government is abusing states by overstepping its authority. Anticipating the problems that would arise from this ambiguity, Alexander Hamilton advised the 1787 constitutional delegates to forget about states' rights altogether and do away with the states. There was little support for his proposal.

The Supreme Court is supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of the question of which are the states' rights, but despite its concern for devolving power as much as possible to the state and community level, and building on the precedents of John Marshall's early 19th century court, it has historically endorsed the extension of federal power. The present court is something of an exception.

It might seem a good season for pandering to voter sensitivity to states' rights, a traditional plank in the conservative political edifice, perhaps ironically, given the conservative unease with democratic control. After a brief lull during the presidency of George W. Bush, right-wing populism has been in ascendency, as the "tea party" movement. Its message -- anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-labor, pro-free market and, often enough, anti-immigration, anti-feminism, anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-atheist -- has resonated with those energized by what has been called cultural rage, the anxiety that familiar and trusted cultural mores and assumptions are eroding beneath one's feet, an anxiety exacerbated by the Great Recession and by the election of Barack Obama. It draws heavily on a sense of being left out, being ignored, being taken for granted and, particularly, being talked down to.

The sense of being the outsider has always played well in Alaska. The statehood movement was built on it. With statehood, the advocates believed, Alaskans would be able to do things their way, rather than being beholden to the federals for everything from fish and game regulation to bonding for public construction. Because of the highly dependent character of the Alaska economy, Alaska doesn't have quite the independence the advocates planned. But the statehood campaign was so successful and left such a deep imprint that the persecution complex lingers, and is easily excited by aspiring politicians. Before many Alaska audiences, the mere mention of the name Joe Vogler, highly visible advocate for Alaska secession from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, will bring a rousing cheer.

Few Alaska politicians have or would endorse the idea of Alaska secession. But challenges to federal laws and executive orders are frequent in Alaska, though the success rate for most is not particularly good, partly because sometimes they're overwrought and seem intended as much for political consumption as for substance.

During his second administration, Walter Hickel brought an expensive suit to the Court of Federal Claims asserting violation by Congress of a compact between the state and federal government in Congress's passage of the Native claims settlement act (ANCSA) and the Alaska lands act (ANILCA). The suit failed, the court finding that Alaska cannot be viewed as an exceptionality among the several states, and that the Alaska statehood act is not a contract binding Congress.

Historically, the federal government has been a better advocate for and protector of the rights of minorities and ideals of environmentalists than the states, a perception that should be aired more than it will be during the upcoming political debates.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox