Opinion

Republicans say they believe in small government. Except when it comes to marijuana.

The GOP's opposition to Washington, D.C.'s new marijuana legalization law has exposed the party's rank hypocrisy on federalism

If there's one principle that animates the bulk of Republican discourse, it's the idea of limits on state power. Government is not the solution, etc. Judges should strictly interpret the laws as written, as well as their original intent. Whenever possible, policy should follow federalist principles, with authority delegated to the states.

It's a nice little principle with deep roots in American history. It's also a crock. American conservatives don't necessarily care about small government. What they care about are certain ideological outcomes, which they set out to achieve by any means necessary, whether it's using the federal government to override state policy or the Supreme Court to strike down legislation passed by Congress.

Look no further than the King v. Burwell lawsuit, a challenge to ObamaCare that will be up before the Supreme Court this summer. It is perhaps the most blatant case of judicial activism since Bush v. Gore. Conservatives don't like ObamaCare and want it destroyed. How this happens is of little importance. Until they win a legislative majority, this "Monty Python–esque exercise in extreme tendentiousness," as Jonathan Chait put it, will suit just fine.

But perhaps an even better example of this particular Republican hypocrisy can be found in Washington, D.C. In the last election, D.C. voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative legalizing possession of marijuana. Outraged Republicans are trying to use Congress' absolute power over the district to stop the local government from spending any of its own money on legalization, effectively overturning the measure by force.

Now, as German Lopez argues, it's not clear they could actually do this under current rules, since simply legalizing the possession of marijuana wouldn't cost anything (indeed, it would save money, since police would have fewer arrests to make). However, it would prevent the district from implementing any formal legalization regime, as the new mayor Muriel Bowser favors.

Still, just count the howling violations of basic conservative principles here. First, there's the fact that the law was duly passed at the ballot box. Second, there's the big bad federal government behaving in the most big bad way possible. Finally, there's the larger issue of D.C.'s place in the American political system, a city with more people than Vermont or Wyoming who get no representation in Congress even though they pay federal taxes and obey federal laws. Where's the Tea Party?

But never mind. For decades, Republicans have meddled with the local government, screwing up their needle exchange and their handgun ban and their medical marijuana and their abortion policy. Local governance and Reagan-style federalism are supremely important, until they get in the way of lording over a helpless subject population apparently.

To be fair, liberals aren't terribly consistent on principles either. They are somewhat less hypocritical than conservatives — when they had a huge legislative majority, they sort of reimplemented a bunch of good-government rules, like PAYGO, that Republicans had shredded during the Bush years. But liberals will pick and choose principles, too.

In the end, blatant hypocrisy aside, Democrats could learn a lot from Republicans' dedication to victory by any means necessary. There's no point in only one side playing by the rules.

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