Jacob Sullum

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law that banned gun possession near schools. For the first time since the New Deal, the court ruled that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, its usual excuse for meddling in state and local matters.

A year later, Congress passed the same law again, this time specifying that a defendant can be found guilty of carrying a gun in a school zone only if the weapon "has moved in" or "otherwise affects" interstate or foreign commerce. While 72 of his fellow senators pretended to believe this easily satisfied requirement rendered the law constitutional, Fred Thompson voted against the transparent ruse.

It was not the only time Thompson, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, found himself on the losing end of a lopsided vote to assert authority Congress does not have. With some notable exceptions, the Tennessee Republican's Senate record suggests he may be that Washington rarity: a politician who means what he says, at least when it comes to the division of powers between the federal government and the states.

As Thompson emphasizes, this division is crucial to our system of government: By avoiding an all-powerful central authority, it protects liberty, promotes accountability and fosters competition that leads to innovation and diversity in public policy. Recognizing that the federal government has only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Thompson says, "Folks in Washington ought to be asking first and foremost, 'Should government be doing this? And if so, at what level of government?'"

Although he does not always come up with the right answers, Thompson does seem to ask himself these questions. He brags about casting the lone Senate vote against popular measures that impinged on state or local prerogatives, including bills shielding teachers and Good Samaritans from civil liability and an amendment urging schools to adopt "zero tolerance" policies against violence and drug use.

Thompson also broke ranks with fellow Republicans by opposing federal attempts to limit medical malpractice awards, cap punitive damages in product liability cases, and restrict lawyers' fees, arguing that such issues should be left to the states. In 1998, he was one of 32 senators who voted against an amendment aimed at establishing a national legal standard for drunk driving.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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