Many Washington elites or power hungry centralizers argue the Tenth Amendment is an anachronism that was only used to oppress American minority groups. But the debate over a GMO labeling bill that passed Congress earlier this summer reveals the importance and relevance of the Tenth Amendment in today’s political environment.

The GMO labeling bill made its way out of Congress on July 14th and was signed by President Obama on July 29th. It will preempt state GMO labeling laws and give the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the power to develop GMO labeling guidelines that food manufacturers must follow.

The Politics

The GMO issue has fostered a strange series of alliances on both sides of the debate because it cuts across so many various concerns: states’ rights, food safety, scientific research, business interests, food costs, speech rights of food manufacturers, and many other concerns. Only with such a divisive issue will you find conservative Senators like Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) vote with liberal, Progressive socialists like Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT)  and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and let’s include the liberal Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) in this voting block while we’re at it.

All of these senators, and others, voted “NO” on the GMO bill for different reasons. Senators Sanders, Leahy, and Warren opposed the federal labeling standard because they argue it isn’t as stringent as the proposed Vermont legislation. Conservative senators made several other objections. First, there is no constitutional bar that precludes Vermont, or any other state, from passing labeling requirements for GMO foods. Second – and this is a distinctly conservative argument – the GMO bill the president signed into law gives the USDA two years to work out important details of the bill. This sort of reckless, unconstitutional practice cannot be supported by anyone, conservative constitutionalist or liberal progressive.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was one of five Republicans who opposed the GMO labeling bill and he took a principled constitutional stand. Speaking to previous GMO legislation that he voted against, Senator Paul said, “[W]e should also be careful not to lose our constitutional perspective simply because the end result is one we may desire. That’s what we fight against. That’s what the statists do.”

This is an argument with which both the left leaning Vermonter as well as a constitutionalist can agree.

Senator Sanders and some Americans who want state level GMO labeling laws distrust federal agencies. Citizens of Vermont, (the Freedom and Unity state) decided to take action themselves, passing a comprehensive GMO labeling law. The philosophical or scientific justification for the Vermont GMO law is not the point here. It is more important that Vermonters enforced the sovereign rights of a state – a defining aspect of federalism. Conservative constitutionalists, of course, should always favor lawmaking by a state over the federal government on matters not specifically delegated to the federal government.

The Tenth Amendment 

Some members of Congress are outspoken with their constitutional reasons for opposing federal preemption of state GMO laws.

Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY-4) has consistently opposed all federal preemptions. In a public statement following his vote on the recent GMO bill Massie wrote:

“Some of my colleagues voted no on this bill because they believe it violates the 10th amendment. Some voted no because they don’t want any labels on GMOs (federal or state, barcode or English). Some voted no because they believe this legislation is actually designed to prevent consumers from knowing which foods contain GMOs. I voted no, compelled mainly by the first reason.”

Massie stated that, “[this] bill would prevent states from requiring labels on GMO products.” In another statement on a previous GMO bill, also known as the DARK Act, Congressman Massie sardonically questioned the general principle of federal preemption, “[if] Feds know best.”

Another member of the House of Representatives to enforce the Tenth Amendment is Congressman Mark Sanford (R-SC-1). In a statement, he wrote he opposed the recent GMO bill because:

“This issue, first and foremost, was about the power of states relative to the federal government. Too often, what James Madison observed more than 200 years ago is forgotten in Washington; he said then that ‘the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.'”

In other words, the people of Vermont should have the right to legislate according to their interests without interference from the federal government.

Congressman Sanford’s statement is worth reading in full.

Massie and Sanford abided by the letter and spirit of the Tenth Amendment, but there is an even bigger lesson from this example, beyond their clear constitutional fidelity. There is nothing radical or old fashioned about the Tenth Amendment. In the present case, a congressman from Kentucky and another from South Carolina argued that the citizens of the state of Vermont have the right to demand and require food labeling as they see fit.

Had the rest of Congress been true to the Constitution, Vermont would remain free to pursue their own policies, even as other states pursued theirs. As it is we get one-size-fits all dictates from Washington D.C. that will likely be ineffective and beneficial only to big corporate interests.

Image by Alexis Baden-Mayer, Flickr via a Creative Commons 2.0 License


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