The House of Representatives, where the issue of states' rights usually ranks up there with the flag and apple pie, will get another chance next week to show how dear the idea remains.
The issue this time hinges on the states' powers to regulate chemical pesticides and, notwithstanding the institutional bent for pie and flag, the outcome is not clear.
The House is scheduled to take up amendments to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) that would limit the states' current power to be tougher than the federal government on chemical registration.
Supporters of the idea of protecting state regulatory powers say they aren't certain how the debate will turn, even though the National Governors' Association, the Southern Governors' Association and the association of state agriculture departments strongly oppose the committee version.
Under heavy pressure from the chemical industry, and over the protests of the state organizations, the House Agriculture Committee last spring rewrote FIFRA in a way that would diminish state control over registrations.
The industry's chief complaint was with California, which has tougher rules than the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Chemical manufacturers contended that bureaucratic delays in California had cost them millions of dollars because of their inability to market new products.
The industry, led by the Chemical Specialty Manufacturers Association (CSMA), says that other states are poised to impose California-style requirements on chemical registrations, with the potential for regulatory chaos on a 50-state scale.
But Rep. Thomas R. Harkin (D-Iowa), who will propose an amendment to the bill to allow the states to retain their regulatory powers, dismisses the industry claim. The states aren't necessarily planning to get tougher, he says; they just want to know they have the power to do so if necessary.
The debate was confused further this week when the Office of Management and Budget and the EPA, both originally opposed to the bill as written, split apart and then came back together again.
After the committee adopted the bill, industry pressure continued and resulted in an apparent victory this week in changing OMB's mind. But after reversing itself in a message to Capitol Hill, OMB then sent new word that it still opposed the bill as written after all because it sets funding levels too high.
OMB spokesmen could not explain the confusion, but they insisted that the agency is still resolutely against the committee bill on fiscal grounds. EPA, for its part, continues to say it is "sympathetic" to the industry's complaints but is more "troubled" by potential intrusions on the states' prerogatives.
California officials concede that their registration program caused delays, but they argue that changes have been made and delay is no longer a problem. The real issue, they say, is whether they will be allowed to take the steps they deem necessary to protect public health and safety.
CSMA official Ralph Engel pooh-poohs the states' complaints.
"I defy anyone to look at the language of that bill and say that it defies states' rights . . . . It says a state must regulate in a reasoned manner and if it doesn't have a problem, it should give approval in timely fashion. California has abused that over and over again," he said.
But CSMA's critics say that misses the point. The new, stricter process proposed by the legislation, they say, would blunt the states' powers by effectively precluding them from taking the time they think necessary to make their regulatory decisions.
However, the industry's arguments have had an impact, even on House members who traditionally are quick to identify with the states' rights point of view.
One of them, Rep. William C. Wampler (R-Va.), put it this way: "Normally, my position is that I support states' rights. But I'm not sure that is the issue. If you let each state operate at its own whim, it has an effect on trade. It will work an impossible burden on pesticide producers."