Remember the "New Federalism"? State and local
governments were supposed to be "laboratories of
democracy," where new ideas could be tried out to
address social problems, where government would be
more responsive to citizen input at the local level.
This was one of the justifications given for
shrinking the role of the federal government in
social spending (but not military spending) during
the Reagan era.
In recent years, as reform initiatives have been
blocked at the federal level by budget cuts and the
strong corporate lobby in Washington, attention has
turned to the states on a number of issues,
including health care reform, education reform, and
campaign finance reform.
But the New Federalism took a body blow last week.
The Supreme Court, whose "conservative" justices
supposedly like "states' rights" and dislike
"judicial activism," struck down 9-0 a Massachusetts
ordinance which granted a preference in bidding for
state contracts to companies which were not doing
business with the military dictatorship in Burma,
whose repression of democracy and use of forced
labor have made it a pariah to human rights
Strikingly, the Court rejected Massachusetts'
argument that its sanctions against companies doing
business in Burma were identical to sanctions it had
in the 1980's against companies doing business in
South Africa, stating that the Court had never ruled
on the constitutionality of the anti-apartheid
sanctions. In other words, the Court implied that if
it had been given the opportunity to find the anti-
apartheid sanctions unconstitutional, it would have
The court noted that the Massachusetts Burma law had
run afoul of the rules of the World Trade
Organization, and cited this as evidence that
Massachusetts was interfering in U.S. foreign
policy. The Court said that Congress pre-empted the
state sanctions when it passed federal sanctions,
even though Congress never said this was its intent.
It seems that while many were focused on whether
nominees to the Supreme Court were pro- or anti-
abortion, we wound up with nine justices who are
What does this mean for gun control? On gun control,
progress in Washington has also been blocked.
You might not think of gun control as a corporate
power issue. After all, judging from most press
coverage, it's the National Rifle Association that
stands in the way of reasonable regulations of guns.
But the National Rifle Association is increasingly a
front group for the gun manufacturers and the
national Republican party.
The corporate lobby at large doesn't care that much
about access to abortion, gun control, or prayer in
schools. But they do care about Republican control.
With Republican control of the Congress and perhaps
even the White House, corporations can expect a very
sympathetic ear for their demands for lower taxes on
corporations, lax regulation and enforcement, and no
anti-trust scrutiny. These positions are good for
getting campaign contributions, but they're not so
good for public consumption. "Vote for me so
corporations can pay less taxes, dump pollution and
employ sweatshop labor" doesn't play in Peoria.
That's why it's useful to Republicans, as the more
blatantly pro-corporate party, to mobilize their
troops on issues like guns, abortion and school
This strongly suggests that initiatives outside of
Washington are necessary to force change. More than
30 local governments around the country - joined
this week by New York City - are suing the gun
industry for deceptive marketing practices and for
medical and law enforcement costs of gun violence.
The threat of lawsuits induced Smith & Wesson to
strike a deal with Philadelphia to install safety
locks on its guns. Philadelphia agreed to give Smith
& Wesson a preference in city contracts, as a reward
for being more responsible than other gun
This bid preference could also run afoul of WTO
rules. A foreign gun manufacturer could argue before
the WTO that Philadelphia, by granting a preference
in granting city contracts to companies that install
safety locks, discriminates against foreign gun
manufacturers. For now the latest Supreme Court
ruling on the Burma laws would not apply, since
there has been no Congressional action.
This indicates the wide scope of the issues at
stake. Democracy and the corporations are in a race.
Right now, the corporations control international
economic policy and have preponderant influence in
Washington. At the local level, democracy still has
good odds on some issues. Corporations are doing
their best to squeeze those opportunities out of the
system, and tighten their control. Local governments
should be pressed to assert their authority more
strongly than they have in the past.
Robert Naiman is a
Senior Policy Analyst at the
Center for Economic and Policy Research.