Federalism – It’s Like Riding a Bike

In the Fall of 2016, at the height of the Trump-Clinton presidential campaign, my wife Becky and I took an anniversary trip to Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Pagosa Springs is home to an innovative greenhouse company. I love to garden and have always wanted this kind of greenhouse. So, I talked my wife into a trip to Pagosa Springs to celebrate our 28th anniversary. (Am I a romantic, or what?). Fortunately, my wife Becky is a saint with the patience of Job, so she agreed to my greenhouse gardening anniversary plan.

Happily, for the sake of my marriage, Pagosa Springs is also a quaint hot springs and spa resort town. Becky loves hot springs and massages, so there is no dog house with my name on it in this story.

Here’s where the federalism lesson comes in.

My Birkenstock-clad masseuse was a 30-year New York transplant to Pagosa Springs. He sported a Rapunzel-like ponytail and kept his mountain bike stashed in the massage room.

During the initial chit-chat phase of the massage, he asked what I did? Upon learning that I serve in the Utah Legislature, he asked what issues I focused on?

I thought if I said “federalism,” it would go over about as well as answering in Japanese. Noticing his mountain bike, an idea hit me.

“What’s written on the tires of your mountain bike?” I ask.

“The tire pressure,” he responds.

“Do you know how much pressure your tires are supposed to have?”

“About 55 psi (pounds per square inch),” he says.

“Well, what if your front tire has more than 105 psi and your back tire has less than 5?” I inquire.

“That would be a disaster!”

“What if you just ride harder?” I continue.

“That would make it worse,” he says.

“What if you get Lance Armstrong all hopped up on steroids to ride your bike? Maybe that would work?”

“No,” he responds, “that would be even worse!”

“Well, what if you just steer the bike hard to the right, or maybe to the left? Maybe that would fix the problem?” I probe.

“No,” he insists, “you have to fix the bike!”

“Exactly,” I say, “that’s what I’m working on in the state legislature.”

I shared with him how our unique, American system was designed with two governing spheres – national and state – like the two tires on his bike. The “tire pressure” in the national sphere was designed to be “limited and few” and the “tire pressure” for the states was designed to be “numerous and indefinite.” However, today the front tire is so bloated it is about to explode and the back tire is so flat it is about to chew the rubber right off the rim.

“Isn’t it ridiculous,” I ask, “that all anyone is talking about during this election is whether Trump or Clinton should ride the bike? And, whether they should steer it to the right or to the left?”

With that, he stepped back, clapped his hands, and cried out “That’s it! I’ve learned more about our government in the last 3 minutes than I have known all my life! Everyone in the nation needs to know this!”

Indeed! As our society is fixated 24/7/365 on who rides our battered “bicycle of state” and whether it should go to the right or to the left, everyone in the nation needs to know that our unique federalism system is actually the solution!

“This balance between the national and state governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people.” Alexander Hamilton, New York Ratifying Convention, 1788.

With this in mind, the Utah Commission on Federalism, together with the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, created a federalism curriculum series to focus “with particular attention” on “this balance between the national and state governments.” Here is a link to the second short video in this series.

To paraphrase the College Football Hall of Fame coach, Lou Holtz: we are not going to secure the blessings of liberty to our posterity because we have a new president or a new Congress any more than we are going to fix the flat tire of our governing system by changing the rider. We will prosper as a nation the minute state leaders get rid of excuses as to why we can’t restore this crucial governing balance.

Prominent Founder John Dickinson warned, “it will be their own faults if the several states suffer the federal sovereignty to interfere in things of their respective jurisdictions.” However, we cannot do what we do not know. Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of State Legislators “to teach …our people that the Framers considered structural protections of freedom the most important ones,” because, as Justice Kennedy exhorted, “the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril”?

This community of state leaders, especially those following the Center to Restore the Balance of Government Newsletter, are uniquely positioned to teach the principles of federalism and restore the governing balance between the national government and the states. The establishment of a Committee of Federalism in each state could be an important first step – read more about Idaho’s most recent efforts here.

The ALEC Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas August 14-16, 2019 will also offer ample opportunities to explore ways to put federalism principles into action.

Representative Ken Ivory is a member of the Utah House of Representatives. He serves as the Chairman of the Center to Restore the Balance of Government at ALEC

In Depth: Federalism

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