Federalism and the Philippines

I was invited to present on “Understanding the Structures of Federalism” at the U.S. Embassy in Manila on August 14, 2017. It was a genuine privilege to be asked to comment on if and how to incorporate federalism—a concept that is the basis of the American system of governance—into the political system of another country. The event was held in conjunction with the “U.S. Embassy Talks” series and students and their professors from five Philippine universities attended in person and virtually. The talk was particularly timely as President Duterte has expressed a strong interest in introducing federalism into the governmental structure, and the Philippine legislature is currently exploring options on how and whether to proceed.

While the presentation focused primarily on federalism in the U.S., the conversation that followed veered to how and if federalism would work in the Philippines. Instituting state sovereignty in the Philippines would require a number of constitutional changes. However before that can occur, the legislature must determine the appropriate mode of adopting constitutional amendments. Numerous policies relating to taxation strategy, how to allocate infrastructure funds and healthcare, among other details, would need to be ironed out. Some policymakers in this archipelago nation view federalism as a tool to fight corruption, although reducing corruption should be a precursor to overlaying any new governmental system. Others see it as a way to calm the violence that has erupted in Mindanao in the nation’s south. However ceding greater autonomy to Mindanao has led to more violence not less, suggesting that federalism is just as likely to lead to Balkanization as to peace. Concerns were expressed about what would happen to those sections of the country that were not as economically prosperous. Would they be left behind and what could be done to assist them in development? Additionally, attendees were curious to learn what a greater degree of state/regional sovereignty can and cannot accomplish and how long it would take for complete implementation of federalism in their country. The conversation was robust; the questions were probing and an abridged version of the presentation text is below. The remainder of the week featured discussions with several law and policy makers that are actively studying and considering the viability of adding state sovereignty to the Philippine governmental construct.

Presentation: Understanding the Structures of Federalism

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today, and I’m interested to hear that the Philippines is exploring the incorporation of federalism into its governmental structures. America’s founders thought federalism was so important that they made it an indelible part of the U.S. Constitution. This is my first time in the Philippines—it’s a beautiful country, and I am very much enjoying the visit. It is also exciting to be asked to speak on a topic that marries the two aspects of the Task Force—federalism and international relations. It is rare that I get to do this.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, also known by the acronym ALEC, is a membership organization made up of state legislators. Between 25 and 30 percent of American state legislators count themselves as ALEC members. Three times a year we hold meetings attended by state legislator members and ALEC private sector members—NGOs, trade associations and corporations—to exchange ideas in order to come up with best practices on a wide array of policy issues facing the nation and the states.

For Americans, federalism is intuitive, even though many of us can’t define it. The fear of replacing the tyranny of British Kings with a new tyranny is what drove our Founding Fathers to incorporate it into the Constitution. In the wake of the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the constitutional framers decided that a central government was necessary to provide for the common defense, general welfare of the citizens and even to protect liberty. However, they wanted to make sure that the national government’s power was limited and decided that federalism—making the states co-equal to the central government—along with checks on the executive branch by the legislative and judiciary branches was the best way to accomplish this. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution underscores their vision and is best articulated by James Madison in Federalist Papers # 45: “The powers delegated to the Federal Government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.”

Some of the more prominent hallmarks of federalism in America include the U.S. Senate where each state is represented by two Senators irrespective of size and the electoral college which gives less-populated states outsize influence on who is elected president. This ensures that presidential candidates cannot simply woo voters in the most populous states and hope to win. The states are also an integral part of the constitutional amendment proposal and ratification process. In this way, the Founders preserved America’s 50 laboratories of democracy and tried to prevent the consolidation of excess power with the national government.

Federalism in the U.S. has faced strains from the very beginning which intensified after the Civil War and well into the 20th century when many began to identify state sovereignty with unpopular ideas like slavery and the American South’s attempts to prevent desegregation. This caused many Americans to abandon federalism. Simultaneously, the United States became a global leader emphasizing the governmental functions over which the national government has jurisdiction, and some wondered if federalism had become a relic that had outlived its usefulness. Due to a general decline in civic engagement and federalism’s negative associations, the states and the people failed to protect state sovereignty—a possibility foreseen by the constitutional framers who recognized that the states must guard their power otherwise it would inevitably migrate to the federal government. States accepted laws, regulations and executive orders without pushing back on federal overreach. James Madison predicted that this might happen and cautioned us. “…there are more instances of abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” He was right—the federal government’s “encroachment” was definitely “gradual” and “silent”!

Federalism is currently experiencing a resurgence that began slowly and almost unnoticed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. A strong supporter of an Article V amendments convention to propose a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he also issued Executive Order 12612 to restore the division of governmental responsibilities between national and state governments. As Congress has grown increasingly dysfunctional, popular distrust of Washington has intensified and the American people have looked to the states, with their relative functionality, to address some of the nation’s challenges. The election of Donald Trump accelerated this process as some of the less federalism-minded initiatives pursued by the his administration succeeded in uniting both progressive and conservative states in their opposition. The Federal Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, for example, drew the ire of left and right leaning states alike, leading to the discovery among less conservative Americans that state sovereignty doesn’t have a party affiliation and can be used to pursue more progressive policies on issues like immigration and the environment just as easily as it can be used to advance conservative initiatives.

In response to this federalism renaissance, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan launched the Intergovernmental Affairs Task Force consisting of a nonpartisan assemblage of state-based organizations to advise Congress on federalism. ALEC is on the Task Force Advisory Council. States are re-purposing an old-fashioned idea—Committees of Correspondence to evaluate laws to identify examples of federal overreach and state lawmakers on both the Left and the Right are submitting applications to Congress to call an Article V amendments convention. Returning control of select parcels of federal lands to state control is also becoming a more prominent issue of late.

While federalism provides a safety valve for states that believe that their concerns are not being properly addressed, it can paradoxically increase division in an already divided public. Even within states, sizeable segments of the population feel that their views are being disregarded. Austin has more in common ideologically with San Francisco, California than with many parts of Texas. Further, in the modern world, there is a tension between meeting national priorities with national initiatives and the preservation of the 50 laboratories of innovation. I’m very interested in hearing about your thoughts on federalism in your nation—what challenges and opportunities you see ahead and how you believe the Philippine experience might be similar and different from the American one. I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have.

In Depth: Federalism

Genuine accountability to hardworking taxpayers results when state and local legislators work with members of the community to determine a plan of action that is right for each individual state, city or town. Real solutions to America’s challenges can be found in the states – America’s fifty laboratories of democracy…

+ Federalism In Depth