How the Left Misuses Federalism

If two of the following policies clash with each other, which one should conservatives support? (a) high-tax, big-government, big-subsidy, anti-free market policies enacted at the state level, or (b) limited-government, conservative, low-tax, free-market policies enacted at the federal level?

The answer should be obvious: (b). Most conservatives recognize this.

Nevertheless, a coalition of allegedly free-market organizations is trying to lecture conservatives that supporting option (a) is a true litmus test for their conservative credentials. Give me a break.

Ostensibly, their version of a “conservative” argument goes like this: Conservatives say they support federalism, whereby local policymaking is generally more conducive than national policymaking. So, if leftists succeed in enacting freedom-destroying, anti-free-market policies at the local level, conservatives should oppose state-level policies correcting them. If leftists succeed in enacting freedom-destroying anti-free-market policies at the state level, conservatives should oppose federal government policies correcting them.

But there’s a big problem with that argument: Leftists don’t play by those rules.

The leftist tactical playbook is, first and foremost, to impose nationwide restrictions on freedom and free enterprise. If they fail or only partially succeed at the national level, they next go to the 50 states and attempt the same strategy. If they fail or only partially succeed at the state level, they go to local governments and attempt the same plan yet again. They don’t believe in federalism, and they seek to circumvent federalism every chance they get. National restrictions are their preferred outcome. State and local restrictions are their fallback options.

An example of this approach is the leftist war on fracking. During the Obama administration, leftists frequently sought a nationwide ban on fracking, in contradiction to the desires of most states and localities. They failed, but instead of giving up, the anti-frackers moved on to the states and local governments, where they have since sought the same restrictions, with some success.

When conservative, free-market supporters advocate for statewide policies protecting the right to produce energy via fracking, Leftists hypocritically scream “federalism!” -- even after seeking to restrict fracking and economic freedom at the national and state levels.

The Left is now trying this same ploy regarding wind and solar power and net metering. The Left and the renewable power industry are looking to impose nationwide mandates requiring 100 percent wind and solar power. Having failed to date at the national level, they have pivoted to the states. As of this writing, they have imposed renewable power mandates in roughly 30 states. When they have failed at the state level, they have gone to local governments and attempted to impose the same mandates.

The Left also continues to seek taxpayer subsidies for the wind and solar power industries, despite having already succeeded in enacting federal subsidies that foot the bill for 30 percent of solar power equipment, plus additional subsidies for wind power. These massive federal subsidies have not been enough to quench their thirst for public funds at the state level.

These mandates and massive subsidies defy every principle of conservative, free-market policy. Yet, even here, the Left is not satisfied. It seeks and has achieved in getting passed laws forcing utilities to purchase excess power generated by individuals’ heavily subsidized wind and solar equipment.

But even this has not contented leftists, so they have also called for laws requiring utilities to purchase individuals’ excess wind and solar power at retail rates, rather than the wholesale rates that the utilities pay to all other generators, a contrivance they have succeeded in getting passed in some regions. This is yet another massive wind and solar subsidy that must be paid for by all other electricity customers.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has jurisdiction over electricity markets. A group of electricity consumers in New England, the New England Ratepayers Association (NERA), has petitioned FERC to exercise its jurisdiction to put some bounds on the wind and solar subsidy madness. NERA is asking FERC to exercise its authority to protect ratepayers against state laws that force utilities (and by extension, consumers) to pay above-market rates for excess wind and solar power.

It is the definition of free-market conservatism to protect consumers against state governments (a) tilting the playing field by picking winners and losers in the marketplace, (b) creating additional subsidies on top of existing subsidies, and (c) forcing consumers to pay above-market electricity prices.

The very same interest groups that are crying “federalism!” in response to the NERA petition are the leftist groups that have in the past gone to the federal government seeking mandates and subsidies on these very issues. They don’t believe in federalism, and they frequently fight against federalism to accomplish their radical goals.

When conservatives have stood up against big-government, anti-free-market policies imposed at the state or local levels, these same hypocrites have shamefully lectured conservatives about “the conservative principle of federalism.” Why should we care what unprincipled opportunists such as these have to say about federalism?

Ultimately, federalism is a valuable means of preventing a large federal government from encroaching on freedom and individual rights. However, just as federalism should not restrict the federal government from protecting citizens’ First Amendment or Second Amendment rights in the states, neither should Leftists be able to turn the principle of federalism on its head by saying federalism should prevent FERC from protecting consumers from big-government, anti-free-market leftist mischief in the states.

So, while pretend-conservative groups lobby hard for additional subsidies for wind and solar power, it is entirely appropriate -- and indeed, necessary -- for true conservatives to ask FERC to exercise its jurisdiction in favor of free markets and affordable energy.

James Taylor (JTaylor@heartland.orgis president of The Heartland Institute.

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