Guzzling Power, Not Fuel

July 04, 1992

Funny how the Bush administration passes the buck to the states on some things, but not others. When it costs money, somehow federalism dictates that the task belongs to the states. But when it comes to protecting a vested interest somewhere, the states are barred from meddling.

So it is with encouraging people to buy fuel-efficient automobiles. The Maryland General Assembly passed a law as part of its desperate revenue-raising this year that would have imposed a penalty on purchasers of gas-guzzlers and offered an inducement to buy efficient cars. The motive was primarily to raise revenue, of course, but an underlying objective was to reduce pollution by cutting gasoline consumption in the state. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- an ironic title in this instance -- objected. The federal government has "pre-empted" the subject of fuel economy, the agency's lawyer said.

From a narrow, legalistic perspective, the feds have a point. Somewhere in the legislative process, someone didn't do his homework. But Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr., has wisely decided to go to the mat with Washington on the issue. He is satisfied that the law passed by the legislature can be fixed next year to fulfill the state's objective. An even better idea, Mr. Curran suggested, would be for Congress explicitly to permit the states to legislate on fuel economy if they want to move beyond the federal standards. This is hardly unprecedented, and would really be federalism in action.

Not much would be lost for Maryland either way. The penalty for gas-guzzlers and incentive for efficient cars would not have been more than token in the next two years. The law doesn't acquire a real punch until the 1995 model year. That's time enough to deal with Detroit's protective coterie in Washington -- Democrats in Congress as well as Republicans in the White House. They like keeping control over automobile standards in the name of uniformity; not to mention that it's easier for Detroit to win friends and influence legislators in Washington than in 50 state capitals.

But some states, Maryland among them, have severe pollution problems that must be dealt with, in part because Washington demands it. It's the essence of federalism that any state be permitted to move beyond the federal government's pandering to Detroit if it wishes. In one of the cases that framed this country's constitutional system (originating, incidentally, in Maryland), the Supreme Court said that the power to tax involves the power to destroy. Well, it also involves the power to induce behavior that makes our little part of the nation more livable. That's federalism too.

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