As the stirring piano music played in the background of his presidential announcement, Newt Gingrich made his pitch: “There’s a much better American future ahead, with more jobs, more prosperity, a better health system, longer lives, greater independent living, and a country that is decentralized under the 10th Amendment, with power once again back with the American people and away from the Washington bureaucracy.”
On Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta van Susteren” Tuesday, amidst a barrage of tough questions from the host about his Meet the Press appearance and Tiffany’s credit line, Newt raised the 10th Amendment again and got a little more specific: “My campaign is going to offer a lot of very large changes, including a 10th Amendment implementation bill which enforces the 10th Amendment to the constitution and takes a great deal of power out of Washington and sends it back home.”
For most members of the Tea Party, “enforcing” the 10th Amendment is actually a very familiar rallying cry. “Tenthers,” as they are often called, believe in a strict interpretation of the 10th Amendment, which says that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So in the radical tenther interpretation, if the Constitution doesn’t explicitly say the federal government can do something, it can’t. Therefore, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, federal minimum wage laws, bans on segregation and workplace discrimination, environmental regulation, and many more staples of progressive government would be impermissible at the federal level.
As Ian Millhiser, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, has noted, tentherism has a long history on the right. After the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, 19 Senators and 77 representatives endorsed a “Southern Manifesto” declaring that Brown "encroach[es] on the rights reserved to the States" because the "Constitution does not mention education." President Franklin Delano Roosevelt battled a tenther contingent on the Supreme Court, which struck down parts of the New Deal on 10th Amendment grounds. (He criticized them in his second inaugural address, saying “the Constitution of 1787 did not make our democracy impotent.”)
While echoes of tentherism could be heard in the “states rights” arguments against civil rights in the 1960s, it largely fell out of favor thereafter. To believe in tentherism would be to dismantle most of the last century’s progress and almost completely eliminate all elements of the welfare state.
As one might expect, however, Tentherism has made a comeback inside the Tea Party movement, as evidenced by one of the main candidates openly advocating for a re-interpretation of that crucial amendment. It’s ironic that while saying Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare was too “radical,” Gingrich was simultaneously proposing that much of the federal government’s social programs should be terminated and taken up by the states.