A recent forum on federalism held on Capitol Hill served to highlight both the progress made and the challenges ahead in reigning in an overreaching federal behemoth, and restoring the proper balance of power between the state and federal governments.
Close to 40 people gathered in a committee room inside the Longworth House Office Building on Thursday, April 14, to discuss the Tenth Amendment, federalism and how to place decision making back into the hands of the states. Participants included members of Congress, state legislators, and representatives of several think tanks and other organizations, along with numerous congressional staffers and policy analysts.
Why go into the belly of the beast?
I attended as a representative from the Tenth Amendment Center with one very important understanding – states do not need permission from the federal government to exercise their inherent powers. That said, I recognize the value in developing relationships with members of Congress sympathetic to the cause and doing all I can to assert TAC influence as discussions move forward.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) hosted the forum. Bishop also co-founded the 10th Amendment Task Force, a project of the Republican Study Committee. The task force exists to “disperse power from Washington and restore constitutional balance of power through liberty-enhancing federalism.”
The 10th Amendment Task Force says the right things.
“While the founders did intend for the national government to exercise some important powers, these powers were intentionally limited in number and scope. Most powers were reserved to the states, or more important, the American people.”
I remain wary of anything coming out of D.C. Politicians excel at saying the right things with an accompanying failure to deliver when it comes down to actual policy making.
But the fact that nearly 40 people gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss the Tenth Amendment and seriously contemplate downsizing the role of the federal government scores as a win in and of itself. Two years ago, this meeting would never have happened. A combination of egregious federal overreach, most vividly represented by the national health care law, and unsustainable spending, create a climate conducive to the message of placing the feds back into the box created for it by the Constitution and restoring the proper role of state governments.
As the task force members say, “Centralized power and one-size-fits-all solutions from Washington bureaucrats contribute to the sense of powerlessness and frustration among Americans, who find their lives controlled by a government that is out of reach and out of touch.”
The task force and forum participants seem genuinely committed to downsizing D.C. and restoring the balance of power between the states and the central government intended by the founders. And they do a good job of identifying some of the issues that drive D.C.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) pointed out how big corporations and lobbyists push for those one-size-fits all federal solutions so they don’t have to deal with 50 different states. Central solutions are convenient for competitive reasons.
“In everything from social issues to economic things, they all come here and want to win one big fight here as opposed to actually to go legislature to legislature,” he said
And the task force advocates the right solution.
“Today, most politicians make promises and grapple with the nation’s problem without even acknowledging the best and most obvious approach to confront the nation’s challenges: restore balanced federalism so that Washington no longer has to be the world’s problem solver.”
But some irony certainly exists when a task force meets in Washington to solve the problem of too much power in Washington.
Therein lies my concern. I detected a certain underlying attitude, an assumption that federal government reigns sovereign and it will “allow” the states to exercise their proper power and assume their proper roles.
There was a great deal of discussion centering around whether the states or the feds stand best equipped to handle certain roles, but very little focus on constitutional enumeration of powers.
“We need to find those dividing lines and how we make a decision on where the division of labor ought to be,” Bishop said.
It’s not that complicated. The Constitution draws those lines.
Bishop did point out some issues present gray areas, for instance cell phone regulation, which was certainly something the founders could not have fathomed more than 200 years ago. But even so, the general failure to appeal to the Constitution in order to determine those dividing lines raises concern.
That brings me back to my initial assumption going into the forum. The states don’t need Congress, the Supreme Court, the president or any federal bureaucrat to give them permission to exercise powers already belonging to them. The states supersede the federal government, except within the sphere of power delegated to the general government through the Constitution. So if members of Congress want to help facilitate the process of restoring a constitutional relationship between the states and the fed, welcome to the party. We will work hand in hand with you. But we don’t need you. We will continue the fight with or without your blessing.
The forum also raised another question. Do state lawmakers actually possess the courage to take hold of their responsibilities and forgo the seductive power of federal funding?
Many state legislators participating in the forum talked big about wanting the federal government out of their business. They spoke specifically and passionately about federal overreach in areas such as tort reform, insurance regulation and sex offender registries.
Wisconsin Senator Lena Taylor delivered the strongest message to the federal government, addressing the possibility of additional federal insurance regulations.
“I’d like to push back on that effort and say – maybe not in the most savvy way – leave your hands off of us. You know what I’m saying? Don’t tread on us.”
Yet mere moments later, Taylor appealed for more federal special education funding.
State lawmaker must understand they can’t have it both ways. If they want the freedom to exercise their sovereign powers, they must take the responsibility of funding their own programs. They must wrench the stick AND the carrot out of federal hands.
The federalism forum proved a mixed bag – informative, educational and certainly a positive development.
Pause and wrap your head around this: the 10th Amendment was discussed in a serious way on Capitol Hill. It indicates to me, we are advancing in the war of ideas.
And we should commend Bishop, along with other members of Congress involved in the forum, for stepping out and taking a stand on state sovereignty. It certainly does not represent a mainstream position on Capitol Hill
But we are all naïve if we believe the ultimate solutions will come out of a task force in D.C. We must win the battle at the state level, convincing the states to reassert their power and take hold of their proper roles.
Members of Congress
Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah)
Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.)
Rep. Sandy Adams (Fla.)
Rep. Tim Heulskamp (Kan.)
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.)
Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.)
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (Ind.)
Rep. Rob Woodall (Ga.)
Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (Va.)
Sen. Richard Moore (Mass.)
Rep. Jan Pauls (Kan.)
Sen. Denton Darrington (Idaho)
Sen. Joni Cutler (S.D.)
Sen. Amanda McGill (Neb.)
Sen. Stephen Morris (Kan.)
Sen. Don Balfour (Ga.)
Sen. Lena Taylor (Wis.)
Rep. Jerry Madden (Texas)
Rep. Eric Watson (Tenn.)
Rep. Phil Haire (N.C.)