Jacob Sullum

Mike Lee calls for "a new conservative reform agenda" based on "three basic principles," one of which is federalism. "The biggest reason the federal government makes too many mistakes is that it makes too many decisions," the Republican senator from Utah explained in a speech at the Heritage Foundation last year. "Most of these are decisions the federal government doesn't have to make -- and therefore shouldn't."

So why on earth is Lee co-sponsoring a bill introduced last month that would ban online gambling throughout the country, instead of letting each state decide whether to allow Internet-assisted poker? The contradiction illustrates one reason the GOP seems destined for permanent minority status: Too many of its members are unprincipled killjoys who do not understand that federalism requires tolerance of diversity.

The bill Lee supports, which would ban "any bet or wager" placed via the Internet, was instigated by casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who would prefer not to worry about online competition. The motive for the bill thus violates another of Lee's three basic principles: opposition to "dispensing political privileges to prop the well-connected up."

But the blatant disregard for federalism is especially striking because the bill's backers brazenly claim it is necessary to protect state autonomy. They have even enlisted Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an avowed fan of the 10th Amendment, to testify that a national ban on Internet gambling, which would override the policy preferences of states such as Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey, is what the Framers would have wanted. The National Conference of State Legislatures sees things differently.

Poker is not the only subject that turns Republicans into advocates of a meddling, overweening federal government. Pot also brings out their inner centralizers.

Republican legislators have repeatedly criticized the Obama administration's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, arguing that the president is constitutionally bound to crush these experiments. "Federal law takes precedence" over state law, Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., told Attorney General Eric Holder during a congressional hearing last week. "The state of Colorado is undermining ... federal law, correct? Why do you fail to enforce the laws of the land?"

Republicans like Smith not only accept the fanciful notion, which is no less absurd for having been endorsed by the Supreme Court, that interstate commerce, which Congress is authorized to regulate, includes marijuana that never crosses state lines, down to a bag of buds in a cancer patient's drawer. They also argue, as Smith does, that "state law conflicts with federal law" if it does not punish everything that Congress decides to treat as a crime.

This insistence that only one policy -- prohibition -- can be allowed with respect to pot and poker is not just unprincipled, but also politically perilous. Polls indicate that most Americans think marijuana and online poker should be legal, and that view is especially common among young voters.

According to a Reason-Rupe public opinion survey conducted in December, 65 percent of Americans think the government should let people play online poker. That includes 70 percent of respondents younger than 45 and 69 percent of respondents younger than 55.

In a Gallup poll last fall, overall support for legalizing marijuana was 58 percent, including 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 62 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds. A CNN poll conducted in January put overall support for legalization at 55 percent and found a similar breakdown by age: Two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds said pot should be legal, and nearly as many 34- to 49-year-olds agreed.

How do Republicans respond to these tolerant majorities? They do not merely express their distaste for pot smoking and online poker playing or argue that both pastimes should be illegal at the state level. They say the two activities should be banned at the national level, even though that position contradicts their professed commitment to federalism.

That is a "conservative reform agenda" of sorts, I suppose. But it is not at all "new," and it aims to reform us rather than the government.


Jacob Sullum

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