On the Role of States in our Constitutional Order
Sorting out, to some degree, the role of the states in our constitutional order.
If one were to assert that in the constitutional order of the United States that we have a system of co-equal states that retain their basic sovereignty and that have the power to nullify the actions of the central government, one would be correct. Well, one would be correct if one got in a time machine and flitted back to, say, 1785.
At that point in our constitutional history we were governed by a document called the Articles of Confederation. Under that document each states had co-equal representation in the Congress (1 vote each, but with states sending 2-7 delegates to the body). There was no court system and effectively no executive branch. That constitution governed (I use the term loosely) the United States from 1777-1789.
It must be emphasized that the Articles of Confederation were an utter failure from a governance point of view. And so yes, the purpose of the new constitution was to create a strong central government and to subordinate the states to that central government. Put another way: to pretend like the Founders wanted a system of states able to nullify federal laws is to ignore the point that they themselves purposefully and consciously did away with such a system. Indeed, the very act that confers upon them titles like The Framers and The Founding Fathers was the act that subordinated the states to central authority. To say that, by the way, is not to endorse a particular set of policy outcomes. Nonetheless, the ultimate source of power in the US after 1789 was the central government and its constitution. This is not a disputable fact.
Now, yes, I understand that the US Constitution of 1789 creates a federal system that divides policy authority between the states and the central government.
However, I would note the following rather important points:
1. The exact nature of that division of authority has been contested, and has evolved over time. One may not like this, but it is a fact.
2. Much of that evolution has been linked to the Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8. Again, one may or may not like the way that that evolution has played out, but to pretend like it was illegitimate and might be reversed at any moment is a wholly different proposition (even if one wishes to debate the former point, the latter point is tilting at windmills).
3. Much of the policy (as well as the above-noted evolution of the central government-state relationship) that causes the most conflict in contemporary politics are as much (if not more) about the fact that we live in a post-Industrial Revolution world than it does about whether or not Senators are appointed or elected or whether somehow states are inadequately powerful relative to the central government.
One of the things that I find interesting about a lot of people who claim a deep fealty to the US Constitution and the Founding Fathers is that they often argue as if the US Constitution should function more like the Articles of Confederation (certainly the Repeal Amendment proposal is more like the Articles than the Constitution). Further, arguments made about federal power sound a whole lot more like the Anti-Federalists than they do notions and theories put forth in the Federalist Papers.
None of this is to say that one cannot debate, for example, whether the individual mandate under the recent health care reform is constitutional or not or whether or not unfunded mandates are a problem. The point is that a lot of conversation about the role of the states in the existing constitutional order fundamentally misinterprets what the purpose of the constitution itself.
I suppose it is also worth noting that we fought a bloody war over the question of nullification and nullification lost.
A parting point (or reiteration, as it is linked to #3 above): much of our contemporary policy debate is actually far more about what we, generically, expect from government in the current era as opposed to what was the case in the late 18th Century. Even the most libertarian-minded amongst us relies far more on government than did anyone in 1790.