Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Eminent domain and withholding federal spending

Jerry Stratton, July 1, 2005

Kelo just keeps getting worse and worse. It wasn’t bad enough that the Supreme Court extended eminent domain to the point that all uses are public uses--to the chagrin of liberal and conservative alike--now the House is using its most illiberal power rather than reigning in eminent domain to undercut the decision.

Nancy Pelosi says that this is an abuse of the House’s power. Which it is, but no more of an abuse than every other time the House was chosen to coerce local governments not by changing the law, but by bribery and threats.

It’s a very common tactic for Congress, and it is one of the reasons that we need to reform the tax system so that taxes go to states or local governments first, so that such coercion is less effective. While this power may be used in the service of a greater good now, usually it is used for more egregious purposes.

Highway funds are the largest source of bribes and coercion. Congress used federal highway funds to bribe states into setting a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour, long after it became obvious that such a low speed limit did no good for safety.

Highway funds are or have been contingent on drug-free workplace laws, metric conversion, and removing billboards from highways. Colleges must allow military recruiters on campus or face the loss of federal funds.

This reduces the effectiveness of our federal system, a system designed to allow state experimentation in order to find the most effective solutions. For example, if a state better way to monitor driver safety than a point system, they can’t use it without losing federal funds. If a state finds that something other than seat belts can provide better safety in an accident, they must still require seat belts--with primary enforcement--or they will lose federal funds. If states experiment with contractor pay, they run the risk of losing federal funds. The list goes on and on and on.

Some of the things that federal funds are withheld for--such as eminent domain abuses--are good things for congress to be addressing. The definition of “public use” in the constitution sorely needs addressing in the wake of Kelo. But withholding federal funding is not the way to do it. It creates a patchwork of regulations, encourages shell games, and holds the potential to grant undue, otherwise unconstitutional power to the federal government over local governments.

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