TRAVERSE CITY, MICH., JULY 27 -- The incoming chairman of the National Governors' Association (NGA) said today he wants to open up an election-year debate on federal-state relations by testing support for a constitutional amendment that would allow two-thirds of the states to veto federal laws they feel impinge on their sovereignty.
New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu (R), who is slated to succeed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) as chairman of the NGA at the close of the annual summer meeting here Tuesday, told The Washington Post in an interview that the nullification amendment is one option he wants the governors to vote on at their meeting in Washington this winter.
A parallel effort is to be pushed this fall in the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), headed by Robert B. Hawkins Jr., a Californian close to Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
Sununu said the review of federalism issues is "an appropriate focus" for the governors in the period marking the 200th anniversary of the Constitution and the approach of another presidential election. He said he thought many governors share his concern about "failure" of the Supreme Court to safeguard states' rights from encroachment by federal laws.
Sununu, a conservative who is backing Vice President Bush for the Republican nomination, said he would ask the NGA to review federal regulations limiting state discretion in domestic policy and to suggest "one or two areas" where federal laws could be rewritten to give states more leeway.
But Sununu said he also wanted "a task force . . . to take a look at bolder strategies, including a possible constitutional amendment to correct Supreme Court decisions which virtually say the federal government can do anything it wants to the states."
Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), who is expected to succeed Sununu in the NGA chairmanship a year from now, told The Post that Sununu had asked him to be on the task force but had not spelled out the kind of constitutional amendment he is considering.
Sununu told The Post that he had been impressed by a suggestion Hawkins made at the March meeting of the ACIR, a 35-year-old federal commission that considers federal-state issues. Hawkins heads the Institute of Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco think tank, and has a long, close association with Meese, who arranged his appointment by the president as part-time chairman of ACIR.
At the last meeting of ACIR, Hawkins suggested an amendment "to provide for a collective state nullification of national law upon the vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures." The issue was not debated in March but is on the agenda for a Sept. 11 meeting of ACIR, a body with local, state and federal government officials, and is expected to come to a vote there in December, just a few weeks before Sununu wants the governors to consider a similar proposal.
The Reagan administration has tried in several areas to reduce federal mandates to the states, often running into objections from Congress, where Democrats have been wary of broadening state discretion in use of federal funds. But the prod for consideration of a nullification amendment really came from the Supreme Court's 1985 decision in the Garcia case.
By a 5-to-4 majority, the court reversed its 1976 stand and ruled that federal minimum wage and overtime laws apply to state and local government employes. In broad language, the majority told the states that if they were unhappy, they should use their influence in Congress to change the law.
In a brief for the amendment prepared for the March ACIR meeting, it was argued that "collective state nullification of national law is simple and requires the bare minimum of interpretation by the courts . . . . It provides a necessary check and balance to national power that currently is lacking in the Constitution."