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Virginia Attorney General Criticizes Federal Government Overreach in New Book

March 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks with Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia and gubernatorial candidate in that state, about his new book, "The Last Line of Defense," which explores the role of the federal government. Cuccinelli was the first state attorney general to sue the federal government over the health care reform law.

GWEN IFILL: Next tonight: the debate over the role of the federal government.

The issue was a central focus of last year’s presidential campaign, and it is at the heart of a new book by Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s attorney general and a candidate for governor.

Judy Woodruff talked with him recently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, thank you very much for talking with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the book is “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty.”

Your main theme is about how the federal government has overstepped its authority, that it’s taken liberty, it’s taken freedom from the American people. And you say this goes back over a long time. So, who’s responsible?

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: Well, you can’t lay this on one person.

This has been a growing process. And we have reached a point in this particular administration where it’s happening faster and more brazenly than in my lifetime and your lifetime ever before across the administration. But it isn’t new. And we point out in the book Republicans have done this, other Democrats have done this.

It’s a continual tension between the federal government, typically the executive branch of the federal government — though, with health care, you had them all engaged — and everybody else, typically represented by the states. But also, if you look at something like the first NLRB case with Boeing, that’s …

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the National Labor Relations Board.

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: That’s right — between an agency and a company. And the states can’t step in there. They have got to fight for themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You start — you actually go all the way back to the founding fathers, and you write about how they struggled about this balance between power at the center …


JUDY WOODRUFF: … the federal government vs. the power of the states, the people.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you make a case for how they didn’t quite get it right.

If you could have gone back and looked over their shoulder, what would you have had them do differently in the beginning?

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: Well, I was having a similar conversation yesterday.

And the two things I would do differently if — or I think the founders would do differently, put more accurately, if they could have looked ahead, were they wouldn’t have done lifetime tenure for judges. They would have had long terms, but not lifetime. And I think they would have done term limits. But those sorts of things …

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean for members of Congress?

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: Of Congress and the Senate, yes.

And those sorts of things are pretty fundamental. And they’re not going to happen now or, at least they’re very unlikely. But the kinds of balance of power we’re talking about really was much more gradual. If you look at one of those two changes, it’s the lifetime judges, actually, because, gradually, in the end of the 19th century and as we moved into the 20th century, the court, particularly in the New Deal era, really opened up the power of the federal government relative to what it had been perceived to be for the 150 years before.

And that opened the door to much more expansive executive power. And we have seen that continue to happen and to grow. And what we talk about in the book is example after example where they’re breaking the law, or where they’re trampling the Constitution. And the states have a role to play. And I’m obviously an attorney general. I represent a state.

And we pushed back. And the founders expected us to do that. That part is working.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned health care just now.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you spent a lot of time in the book on health care.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You, as the attorney general of Virginia, want to — were the very first to sue the Obama administration over health care reform.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, now fast-forward a couple of years. A number of Republican governors around the country are saying they are going to go along with the administration’s Medicaid expansion.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, it’s worth remembering that, in that health care case, there were four constitutional arguments. The smaller-government side won three of them. We won three of them.

The only reason the law is still standing is because the chief justice read the taxing power what was considered by any of us to be incredibly expansively, and upheld the law with four other votes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, you say he may have done irreparable harm to the independence of the court.

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: I think that he did. I think that — I suspect — and I’m speculating here and not applying motives — I think he was very concerned about the view of America of the Supreme Court.

And in his desire to have the court be viewed favorably by America and Americans, he overthought where this ought to end up, because really what a judge ought to do is walk through a process of how to analyze it, is it constitutional or isn’t it on any of a number of bases. And I think what he ended up doing was doing great damage to the view of Americans of the court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Global warming, though, you say in the book you believe there is such a thing as global warming. You just question how it’s being addressed.

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: I have serious concerns about how it’s being addressed.

The proposed reactions — and, by that, I mean government policies — are phenomenally expensive. They’re phenomenally restrictive of opportunities in the economy. They make poor people poorer. And if you go down to Southwest Virginia with me, you will find one industry, the coal industry.

It’s Appalachia. It’s probably the poorest part of America. This administration is attacking that industry and that region of Virginia. Those are the poorest people in Virginia. And when you have this kind of incredible cost — and there are times when huge regulatory costs properly should be absorbed, but we need to be sure before we do that, because these have crushing effects in real people’s lives.

And they’re not rich people. They’re poor people. Poor people are hurt first and worst by this sort of regulatory onslaught. And those are the people I’m fighting for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re running for governor of the state of Virginia.

And a number of mainstream Republicans, I guess we will call them, have looked at the results of last year’s election and they have said the party has got to focus on expanding its appeal to voters …


JUDY WOODRUFF: … who didn’t vote Republican last year …


JUDY WOODRUFF: … minorities, women. And they say extreme views are not the views that are going to — that are going to appeal.

How do you look at that argument? What do you say?

KENNETH CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, in the context of what I have done as attorney general, or what I am most known for — there are a lot of other things I have worked on, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s protecting the elderly — but what I’m known for as attorney general is pushing back on the federal government.

And there are — because that’s a confrontational undertaking, there are people who view that uncomfortably in the Republican Party, some of the folks that you mentioned. But the fact of the matter is, of our three lawsuits with the federal government, two of them have had Democrat co-plaintiffs. We just won one last month with Fairfax County, the largest county in Virginia, run by Democrats, saved them about $250 million dollars by beating the EPA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying — you’re saying you’re not out of the mainstream?


In fact, Pew Research last — at the end of January, had their first ever poll with a majority of Americans saying that they thought the federal government was a serious threat to their rights and liberties. Now, that means we’re right in the mainstream.

That’s not just Republicans. That — independents were in a majority, and almost 40 percent of Democrats said that. So, I think there’s a serious concern that Americans have woken up to in terms of the role of government and how far it should go and how far it shouldn’t go. And I have been active in pushing back on an expansive federal government. And I think that’s actually being favored — more favorably viewed today than it has in recent years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to continue this interview online.

For now, let me thank you …


JUDY WOODRUFF: … Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.


GWEN IFILL: And, as Judy mentioned, you can find more of that conversation on our website, including Cuccinelli’s views on Medicaid expansion.

Also online, a different perspective, courtesy of former Vice President Al Gore, who joined us recently to discuss his new book, “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.”