ALEC Travels to Iraq: Karla Jones Presents on Federalism at Middle East Peace and Security Forum

Federal overreach is strikingly similar whether in Washington, DC or Baghdad, with Kurds facing many of the same challenges that American state lawmakers encounter in the US.

In November, I was honored to be invited to present on a workshop panel to examine strategies that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could employ to strengthen federalism. Held in conjunction with the Middle East Peace and Security Forum at the American University Kurdistan in Duhok, Iraq, the workshop’s goal was to come up with ideas to enhance the efficacy and fairness of federal arrangements and to propose actionable solutions and policy recommendations to foster a more transparent, cooperative and financially equitable relationship between the KRG and Iraq’s central government. Since the adoption of the current Iraqi constitution in 2005, Iraq has struggled to implement federal structures necessary to achieve the appropriate balance between the central government (Baghdad) and Iraq’s subnational entities – most notably the KRG.

The major takeaways from this conference are:

  • Federal overreach is strikingly similar whether in Washington, DC or Baghdad, with Kurds facing many of the same challenges that American state lawmakers encounter in the US. This includes natural resource revenue sharing schemes reminiscent of the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). The central government frequently reduces and halts remittances to the KRG, impacting the region’s ability to fulfill its financial commitments – notably the timely payment of salaries to public employees.
  • Federalism, an ALEC guiding principle, is a universal governing construct that, when implemented properly, leads to superior governance. Around the world, the best solutions rarely come from one-size fits all, centralized government policies that disregard regional differences and local community needs.
  • ALEC is viewed as a resource on federalism not only for our members but across America and globally.

My remarks are below.

First, I’d like to thank everyone at the American University Kurdistan for this opportunity – I’m really honored to be participating in your conference. Hi, I’m Karla Jones Sr. Director of Federalism, Homeland Security & International Relations at the American Legislative Exchange Council more often known by our acronym – ALEC.

Federalism and international/homeland seem like an unlikely combination, but it works because both topics attract those state lawmakers who are looking beyond the day-to-day operations of a state and at more global mechanisms that affect their states’ outlook. Also, I like to think of federalism as a universal governing construct because government closest to the people being governed usually results in better government!

ALEC is a membership organization made up primarily of state legislators – around one-quarter of all US state lawmakers coming from all 50 states count themselves as our members – and they are attracted to us because of our guiding principles which are…

  • Free markets;
  • Limited government; and
  • Federalism – the guiding principle that excites the most passion among our legislator members.

In fact, when people ask me what I do for a living my answer usually is – I try to identify international issues that help my members serve their constituents, their states, and the nation better.

On federalism, I step back and learn from them and try to create an environment where they can bounce ideas off each other, refining them as they go along. We invite scholars to engage with our members to describe examples of federal overreach, and our members tend to feel that the states have the right and the duty to push back against the federal government when it oversteps its authority.

In addition to learning about policy areas, our members try to come up with solutions or best practices for the challenges facing the states and the nation. We call these best practices model policy and vote on drafts in issue-related task forces at our conferences. The model policies that are adopted by the members of the issue-related task force of jurisdiction and approved by ALEC’s National Board of Directors, become official ALEC model policy and are placed on our website so that anyone can access them. You can look up the model policies on ALEC.org, and this is probably one of the most straight forward ways that ALEC helps to advance federalism principles.

I am not an expert on the political landscape here or your constitution and look forward to learning more about how federalism is implemented in Iraq and what the challenges to regional sovereignty are here. So, I figured I’d start the conversation by describing some American state sovereignty tools and priorities – at least the priorities of our lawmaker members – on ways federalism is strengthened in the US to identify ideas that might be able to work for you.

Article V

Article V of the US Constitution is perhaps the most powerful tool that state lawmakers have to make lasting national change. Amendments to the US Constitution can be made by a 2/3 vote of both Houses of Congress, which is the way it’s been done since the Constitution’s founding in 1787 or by a provision in Article V, where if 2/3 of the state legislatures make an application to call an amendments convention under Article V, Congress is compelled to convene a convention for proposing amendments. America’s constitutional framers probably gave the states this power because they believed in the wisdom of the states and because they might have foreseen a time when Congress would be the problem rather than the solution to the country’s problems. A mechanism for regions to propose constitutional amendments that, in this case would be ratified by popular referendum, would be a significant bulwark against federal overreach here.

Re-Empowerment of the States Amendment

I don’t know the dynamics of how Baghdad’s bureaucracy interacts with Kurdistan, however, the Re-Empowerment of the States Amendment is an interesting idea that was developed by a private citizen in Utah. The Re-Empowerment of the States Amendment would allow 2/3 of the states to repeal in whole and in part any presidential executive order, rule, regulatory action or federal administrative ruling and is one way to keep the national government from amassing too much power.

And the Re-Empowerment of the States Amendment brings me to an idea that was exceedingly popular among ALEC state lawmaker members when President Biden first took office – pushing back against presidential executive orders (EO). During his first months in office, Biden was on track to issue more EOs than any US president, and that spurred the states to enact legislation to review EOs for constitutionality, calling on their state attorneys general to seek to exempt their states from unconstitutional EOs. Education and land use were policy areas seen as important ones where the states needed to push back.

Transfer of Select Federal Lands to State Control

Transfer of select federal lands to state control for states that want the land is another federalism idea that especially resonates with state lawmakers in the western half of the US. Basically, the federal government owns and controls roughly half the nation’s territory from Colorado westward. ALEC members believe that federal mismanagement has led to poor environmental stewardship and is partially responsible for a string of record-breaking wildfire seasons. Our members aren’t alone on that – the Union of Concerned Scientists and a lot of western environmentalists agree. Add to that that it is not economically sustainable for the states, and there are quite a few arguments for seeing if a state like Nevada might be able to do a better job managing select parcels of the more than 80% of land currently owned by the federal government.

Canada is a great case study of how this can work with benefits to the environment and, in the Canadian case, to provincial and territorial economies. Outsized federal control over such vast expanses of territory has led to federal laws that are similar to what you have here with oil export revenue sharing, and like here, the revenues shared are inadequate. In fact, one law in the US – Payments in Lieu of Taxes – is referred to as “Pittance” in Lieu of taxes by many of ALEC’s western state lawmakers.

Enhancing International Trade

States will often enact policies to attract international investment – South Carolina and Georgia and other southern states are particularly adept at getting this Foreign Direct Investment as is Utah, growing jobs and state revenues. In South Carolina, Germany’s BMW is responsible for more jobs than America’s Boeing.

States have also been good at negotiating Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with other countries to maximize international trade opportunities. The British Embassy in the US has negotiated MOUs with at least 7 states (WA, UT, SC, NC, IN and OK), and Taiwan’s consular offices are very active with states on both trade and other initiatives that strengthen the US-Taiwan partnership. MOUs are meant to strengthen economic ties, reduce trade barriers, increase trade and investment, and enhance business networks which generally leads to more jobs. These MOUs don’t take the place of FTAs, however, until America begins negotiating trade agreements again, they’re a good interim step and a way the states have stepped up to take control of their economic futures.

I’m not sure that all the ways that ALEC tries to strengthen federalism in the US are applicable here. For us, a lot of it is education – even state lawmakers often don’t recognize when the federal government is overstepping its authority. Also in America, the federal government offers money to the states so that they, effectively, exchange their rights for federal grants.

Two tactics that might have promise here are:

  • Identifying a unifying federalism policy and combining forces with other regions and governorates to advance that idea. Subnational entities working together around a single proposal are more likely to succeed than one region trying to advance a policy alone. I don’t know if there’s a mechanism for this kind of cooperation, but if there is, there’s strength in numbers. This could also create a culture of cooperation among regions.
  • Creating and participating in forums where federalism leaders here, but also from overseas, can exchange best practices, forge coalitions, and motivate each other. Federalism is hard, and opportunities to engage with and learn from others facing the same struggles are invaluable! The American University Kurdistan seems to be that kind of forum locally, and I know NGOs like Bavaria’s Hanns Seidel Foundation are doing good work bringing federalism leaders from around the world – especially leaders from the Global South – together. Remember, more than any other German state, Bavaria sees itself as a sovereign entity and acts like it. I’d be happy to make the introduction to HSF – they hold an international federalism conference in Bavaria, where you’ll see representatives from a number of countries that are your neighbors. I’d also like to invite you to meet with our state lawmaker leaders on federalism either remotely or at one of our national conferences.

I’d like to conclude by sharing some ideas from a couple of my task force members. The Public Sector Chair of ALEC’s Federalism & International Relations Task Force, Idaho Rep. Sage Dixon recommended:

A written constitution that contains clear jurisdictional boundaries for each governmental entity is imperative for keeping the lines of authority from blurring. It is also important to have elected representation from those who live in the area they represent because local leaders are more likely to protect their communities and states.

The Chair of ALEC’s Center to Restore the Balance of Government, Utah Rep. Ken Ivory offered insights on what he wishes the Constitutional Framers had done:

Government is like a 2-year-old. We need and love it most of the time, however, if we don’t watch it diligently, we know it will get in trouble or rather, make trouble for us. Fixing the mess after the 2-year-old has made it takes more time and energy than checking and reviewing the system on a regular basis to measure the health of the limits, the balance, and the divisions of governing power. If those limits are objectively found to be out of the original balance prescribed in the constitution, it automatically triggers some readjustment mechanisms to realign those limits, balance, and divisions of governing power. The US Constitution needed to include provisions requiring a regular, scheduled assessment for the indispensable limits, balance, and divisions of governing powers.

Thank you for this opportunity, and I look forward to your questions.

In Depth: Federalism

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