Does America need a 'council of elders'?
© Getty Images

"Twenty-five Republican governors vowed to block the entry of Syrian refugees into their states, arguing that the safety of Americans was at stake after the Paris attacks by terrorists," The New York Times reports this week.

But can the governors stop the flow of refugees and other migrants to their states?

"This is an exclusively federal issue," Laurence H. Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, told the Times. "Under our Constitution, we sink or swim together."

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet many Republicans are citing language in their state constitutions that they say justified blocking refugees, the Times reported.

The states are fired up: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Texas "will not accept any refugees from Syria." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said he "won't accept Syrian refugees in New Jersey," according to Philly.com. Tennessee State House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said that "We need to activate the Tennessee National Guard and stop them from coming into the state by whatever means we can."

The interesting thing here is that these governors instinctively stood together in opposition to the federal government before learning whether or not it was legal to do so. They must be thinking now, if they can't do that, why not? Is it the time today to ask why the federal government has this exclusive right and responsibility and not the states?

Why do the states have no say today in their own cultures, collective enterprises and the future of their home places, which is only a distant and arbitrary abstraction to the federal apparatus? In our circumstances today, they cannot really be called self-governing, holistic, autonomous "states" under such controls, but rather are reduced to benign economic zones in a global matrix.

I've heard the case made that we need new immigrants today just as we needed my Irish ancestors to come into the country in the early 1800s or thereabouts to man the factories, build the railroads and fight the wars, including the War of 1812 and the Civil War. But the America then was a vast forest empty of self-contained settler communities for the most part — in west Texas, skirmishes with the Comanche were still ahead and would not be settled for another half-century.

Not so today. America is a continent of full and natural communities; indigenous, prosperous, burgeoning, self-forming, fledgling republics that were intended to to rise in time to collective greatness.

But "can the states actually DO something?" asks Michael Boldin, executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, in a thorough piece citing essay No. 46 of "The Federalist Papers." Boldin offers four steps to political action:

It's unlikely that Congress is going to be able to stop Pres[ident] Obama's plan. And federal agencies aren't going to stop it either.

In the states, it's possible, even if unlikely, that governments will physically impede the resettlement program, or activate National Guard troops to round up people placed by the feds. And if they do, it's most likely that the federal Supreme Court will agree with the federal government that the federal president has sole authority over this issue.

On the other hand, states can, without question, refuse to participate without any real threat of a serious legal challenge. ...

But if multiple states take action like [Tennessee State Rep. Nick] Womick [R] has suggested, this would be far more likely to have a serious impact on the federal government’s ability to resettle refugees within the United States. ...

One might be inclined to ask why [g]overnors haven't been doing this for years in response to federal gun control or NSA [National Security Agency] spying. Right or wrong as a policy matter, effective or not, maybe this episode will teach a few of them that saying "NO" to federal programs is an extremely popular platform.

It is an ominous feature of our American times that the three branches of government that operate out of Washington — the Supreme Court, Congress and the presidency — have all three shown critical weakness or incompetence recently and have historically low approval ratings. The aspirants to the Oval Office in 2016 don't offer much chance of renewal. Late in life, the great Amb. George Kennan declared that America needed a "council of elders" to contain the excesses of democracy. The governors, perhaps meeting in a selective and representative regional council, like a board of trustees at a university or a board of directors of a corporation, might offer America saving grace at a time of dangerous crossing.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at quigley1985@gmail.com.