Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said a few days ago he was considering whether to press for federal intervention in a Georgia industry's state permit to discharge waste into the Ogeechee River.
The state Environmental Protection Division, a bad joke of a name for a toothless joke of an agency, has granted a new discharge permit to King America Finishing. The state's position is that the new permit is more restrictive than the old one -- certainly a relief, given that King America last year paid the state $1 million (with no admission of wrongdoing, of course) after unpermitted discharges into the Ogeechee and the worst fish kill in state history.
Isakson's staff reportedly was looking into a federal law that gives the EPA authority to delegate enforcement of federal clean air and water laws to the states.
"The EPA at the federal level can intercede," Isakson told Walter C. Jones of Morris News Service. "It doesn't have to."
It's interesting to see Isakson, a thoughtful and circumspect public servant, pondering a judgment call on whether and when to call in bigger guns. "Big government," it seems, is not just in the eye of the beholder, but in the circumstances of the moment.
Nowhere is hypocrisy about government overreach more habitual than in Alabama, where loud lamentations against the tyrannical hand of Washington regularly emanate from a statehouse that dictates how many urinals can go in a county courthouse men's room. (OK, that's an exaggeration I think.)
Contradictory relationships between one level of government and another aren't limited to issues involving the feds. We've seen a previous Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, push for authority to decide the size and composition of local school boards, and the current governor invoke state law to dissolve a grossly dysfunctional board in Miller County. We've also heard Deal's support for a constitutional amendment giving the state authority to establish charter schools.
And of course, we hear cheers from the Gold Dome whenever one of those meddling federal courts rules in "Georgia's" favor regarding the Chattahoochee River.
While Deal's contention that state charter schools constitute "true local control" doesn't make much sense in that context, I think I understand the principle he's operating from: When people's rights are being denied at -- and sometimes by -- one level of government it's the obligation, legal and moral, of the next level to intervene.
That was the fundamental conflict of the racial struggles of the 1950s and '60s: Jim Crow was framed by state politicians in the language of "rights," when the only actual rights in jeopardy were basic constitutional ones being denied American citizens by those states bellowing about their "rights."
When American citizens had to fight and bleed and sometimes die for fundamental constitutional principles recklessly discarded by race-baiting politicians in Atlanta and Montgomery and Baton Rouge and Little Rock, it was an American issue, not a "states' rights" one.
Tensions between tiers of government aren't always so momentous; they can be trivial and silly, and sometimes even funny. Years ago, Columbus Council proposed an ordinance to ban "drug clothing" -- apparel with stoner jokes or pictures of marijuana leaves, joints, bongs and the like. Then-City Attorney Hardy Polleys told council such an ordinance was "repugnant" (his word) to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment. It seems Washington's heavy hand hovered over Columbus in the form of that pesky Constitution thing.
A permit to discharge waste into the Ogeechee River isn't the constitutional crisis of civil rights -- although the potential precedent involved in who will protect the people's interest in the health of public waters is surely serious enough.
More power to the senator, however that power can best be wielded, in looking out for the interests of his state when the state itself can't or won't.
Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; email@example.com.