The States Need to Play Tug-of-War with the Federal Government

On July 17, The Heritage Foundation hosted an event entitled Restoring Federalism: Giving Power Back to the States – what a wonderful concept! This thought-provoking discussion featured speakers like Utah State Representative Ken Ivory who also serves as the Chair of the ALEC Center to Restore the Balance of Government, Congressman Rob Bishop (UT) and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The morning was segmented into three panels: Federalism from the State and Local Perspective, Federalism from the Executive Perspective and Federalism from the Congressional Perspective, as well as a moderated discussion between Heritage President Kay Cole James and Mick Mulvaney. You can watch the event here.

The first panel explored Federalism from the State and Local Perspective and included State Representative Ken Ivory (UT) and Senate President Pro Tem Aric Nesbitt (MI) and Mark Brnovich, the Arizona Attorney General. The four overarching points made by the presenters were: (1) States can govern better because they are closer to the people; (2) The states need to assert their constitutional rights. Representative Ivory described federalism as a tug of war where the states have stopped pulling. A federalism renaissance requires the states to pull on the rope. (3) State legislators need federalism education. State lawmakers are woefully unprepared for their job which makes it difficult for them to protect federalism principles. (4) The judiciary needs to be willing to support federalism values in order for the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution to prevail.

During moderated discussion between Heritage President Kay Cole James and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney emphasized that the President had a great outlook on federalism because his time in business gave him a pragmatic view of the dangers of federal over-regulation. Mulvaney observed that the President’s practical knowledge paired with the theoretical reasons to support federalism is the perfect marriage. Furthermore, Mulvaney maintained that when it came to topics like education and healthcare, the President supports state-led solutions providing them the freedom to determine the best practices for their individual states.

The second panel Federalism from the Executive Branch Perspective featured four different members of the administration: Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior David Bernhardt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler, Acting Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Russ Vought and Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Doug Hoelscher. The panelists drove home the point that the administration was doing everything in its power to help restore the appropriate balance of power between the national government and the states. They stressed the importance of rebuilding trust between the federal and state governments and stated that the President has been interacting personally with governors more than any president before him. The panelists also highlighted the administration’s progress on regulatory reform where thirteen regulatory policies have been removed for everyone that has been implemented.

A panel on Federalism from the Congressional Perspective consisting of Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) and Congressman Rob Bishop (UT) stressed the importance of the state and local governments because of the inefficiency of the federal government. Moreover, Representative Bishop added that it is difficult to advocate for federalism because there is a negative stigma around the word. As more progressives employ federalism principles to advance progressive policies, federalism’s reputation will improve and it will more often be assessed for what it is – a nonpartisan tool for states to exercise their constitutionally-protected governmental prerogatives. The Congresspersons observed that one of the biggest threats to federalism is a well-meaning Congress. By their nature, national lawmakers want to fix national problems, which is not always wrong. However, this can lead to federal overreach which is fatal to federalism. Instead of asking “can we,” Congress needs to ask “ought we.”

Federalism is one of the core American attributes imparted by our Founding Fathers to secure our freedom by preventing the national government from amassing too much power. It has the additional benefit of allowing the states to assume the role of Justice Brandeis’ “laboratories of democracy.” However, increasing federal overreach threatens federalism and with it, our liberty. James Madison described the government as a competition of powers, but it hasn’t been a competition because the states have thrown in the towel. Representative Ivory’s description of federalism as a tug-of-war was spot on. In the same way that it is impossible to push a rope, it is impossible for the federal government to give power back to the states. If federalism is going to be saved, the states need to unite, pick up the rope, and pull.


In Depth: Federalism

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