Bookman on the Constitution, Madison and Georgia Republicans

When Republicans in Georgia talk about asserting the Tenth Amendment, I tend to roll my eyes. It’s not because I disagree with that sentiment, but because I know (as I’m sure you do) it’s empty, meaningless rhetoric that will only go so far until the desire for funding for the next pork project is needed. And that is the point of Jay Bookman’s column today over at the AJC:

That proper division of powers between state and federal authorities will be a recurring theme in the 2011 General Assembly as well. Republican leaders in Georgia, including Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, say they are intent on reasserting the rightful, constitutional role of states against an overly intrusive federal government.

In case you’re not getting the message, Republicans are serious about the Constitution. Unlike the Democrats, who treat the nation’s founding document as a mere series of suggestions, Republicans see the Constitution as sacred writ to be followed as originally intended.

Except, not really. Not when put to the test.

For example, the top priority of Georgia’s political and business establishment in the upcoming Congress is to acquire at least $400 million in federal funds to deepen Savannah’s port. With bigger cargo ships coming on line by 2015, the project is critical to expanding Georgia’s role in global shipping. State Republican leaders take the project so seriously that they have even recruited Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to serve as an emissary to the Obama administration to help get the project funded.

But strictly interpreted, the Constitution does not allow the federal government to spend money on such projects, a fact that was a recurring feature of political debate in the early days of our republic.

In 1822, for example, President James Monroe vetoed a bill funding road construction and repair. The Constitution, he wrote, gives the federal government no authority to fund such “internal improvements,” which instead were traditionally funded by states or private investors.
In other words, if deepening the Savannah River is as important to Georgia as our state leaders claim — and it probably is — then a strict, Madisonian reading of the Constitution requires that the taxpayers of Georgia pay for the project.

You can read the full text of Madison’s veto message to the Bonus Bill of 1817 here.

There is no doubt that Bookman is being snarky here, but he is proving an important point – one that I’ve raised in the past.

While Republicans legislators pander to grassroots by passing non-binding resolutions asserting the Tenth Amendment and caucus rules to recite the pledge of allegiance to the state flag, they’re still going to look for federal money for pork projects. Oh, but they will file suit against ObamaCare. While I don’t disagree with that, some consistency would be nice.


  1. Charlie says:

    Except that the Savannah River is not an internal improvement. You are aware it is the border with South Carolina? And that the dredging will also allow acess to the new terminal to be built on the South Carolina side of the river?

    We can pick up later about the Constitutional provisions that allow for federal involvement in ports and trade if that “internal” part doesn’t sufficiently kill this argument for you.

    • Jason says:


      On your first point, yes, I’m aware that the two states border one another. I’m aware that Congress has spent us deeply in the red. I’m also aware that you’d probably walk through hell to defend Johnny Isakson or one of his pet projects.

      If Georgia wants it, Georgia needs to fund it.

      Article I, Section 8 does allow Congress to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” but to say that allows Congress to fund the building of ports is a rather broad interpretation.

      • Article 1, Sec. 8 (Clause 3) has been ‘rather broadly’ interpreted over time to mean a lot of things, and deepening a harbor to accommodate international trade and commerce seems a whole lot less broad than regulating the local production of winter wheat, building reservoirs for hydroelectric production, or mandating that Georgia employers pay the same minimum wage as California employers.

  2. Tiberius says:

    Oh, goody. I love a James Madison vs. Henry Clay vs. Thomas Hart Benton v. John Quincy Adams debate. Maybe we can start talking about canals and the Maysville Road veto too.

  3. Jay Bookman says:

    Charlie, the folks in South Carolina aren’t exactly supportive of the Savannah River project, because they see it as competitive with the port of Charleston, which is also seeking federal aid for dredging. T

    In addition, Madison made his thoughts very clear: “”The power to regulate commerce among the several States” can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce…. If a general power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses, with the train of powers incident thereto, be not possessed by Congress, the assent of the States in the mode provided in the bill can not confer the power. ”

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with federal funding of the Savannah project. But I do think that if you’re going to claim a state’s rights, strict constructionist, Madisonian approach to the Constitution, you ought to apply that philosophy across the board. The whole idea of strict construction is that you don’t pick and choose when you apply it.

    Because you know, with states’ rights come state responsibilities.

    • Gary Cooper says:

      He’s right. With states’ rights come state responsibilities. I don’t have a problem with that mindset and would like for all states to take that approach. It is what was written into the Constitution and the founder fathers who would later become leaders of this great nation concurred with their Presidential pens.

      What Jay is pointing out and what Jason is agreeing with is that our state leaders are basically speaking out of both sides of their mouths – which is the common trait among politicians these days. They talk a good game about reaffirming states’ rights, but behind closed doors the true colors are shown.

      Personally I wish all states would refuse federal money and in turn resist federal mandates. I know that is wishful thinking though.

  4. hewhoone says:

    I find myself agreeing with Bookman and Jason on this one but the solution should be to eliminate the federal government as a middle man.

    The federal DOT has a budget of about $70 billion. If that money went straight to the states themselves we could remove the middle man and the states could use the money for dredging, road building, etc. as they see fit.

    I also find the “local control” hypocrisy evident in local affairs as well. Cities and counties bristle at the state government intruding on their turf but still expect the state to pay for all of their infrastructure needs.

  5. Lady Thinker says:

    Some people will give up principles, morality, and ethical behavior if it can get them more money. States are like individual people, they also give up freedoms for federal money. I feel the only way states can shore up power is to stop accepting federal money with all those strings attached.

  6. saltycracker says:

    When the secession sabre rattling was going on I looked up the balance of payments to receipts – Feds vs. State – while don’t recall the year of the report, for Georgia it was close to even.

    The devil would be in the details and definitions. Enough to cloud the sharpest mind and “prove” any hypothesis.

    Some outcomes seems consistent:
    Administration is cumbersome and gets too complex beyond the levels of our average state population.
    Bureaucracy is bad.

  7. Progressive Dem says:

    The same inconsistency in argument will occur when the Tea Party wing starts to realize the unpopular steps necessary to reduce the budget deficit. Choosing between a tax increase or cuts in entitlements will expose a fault line deeper than the San Adreas for Republicans.

  8. Progressive Dem says:

    It will be interesting to see if Georgia will get any traction with the Obama administration for the port dredging.

    First, from a pure political perspective, why throw Georgia a bone? Obama could come down and the dig the port by hand and he wouldn’t carry the state’s electoral votes in 2012. The Legisalture is going to crap all over him regardless of what he does for the port.

    Second, from a transportation point of view, the Obama administration has been requiring states to carry out balanced transportation programs. About a year ago the Secretary of Transportation (a former GOP congressman) came to Atlanta and said Georgia didn’t have its transportation act together. There isn’t sufficient rail or highway capacity in metro Atlanta where the rail and roads bottleneck to carry additional cargo from Savannah. Why help Georgia build a bigger port if it just screws up the rest of the transportation network? There are lots more worthy states and projects to fund.

    • peachstealth says:

      You know, not all roads or railroads lead to Atlanta.
      I-95, one of the two busiest in the state, comes nowhere near it and the biggest rail yard in the South is in Georgia, but it’s in Waycross, not Atlanta.
      Bestbuy supplies stores in 6 states from Dublin.
      Academy Sports has it’s distribution center in Twiggs County and Target has theirs in Savannah.
      All navigable water in the US is under the authority of the US Army Corps of Engineers which has it’s district HQ in Savannah. The 3d Infantry Division, a rapid deployment force of the U.S. Army, deploys through the port of Savannah so the military has an interest in maintaining the port facilities.

      • Lady Thinker says:

        You are correct. Even though I have lived in Metro Atlanta all my life, Atlanta is not the “be all, end all.”

  9. Skyler Akins says:

    Why should Georgia taxpayers pay for a port that will be used for international exporting/importing, as well as interstate commerce?
    The Constitution specifically gives Congress the right, under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, to “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. The federal government should build the port, because it will be used for interstate commerce and international trade!

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