Bolstered by big Republican gains in national and state offices, federalism is emerging as a significant political issue in America. For example, Congressman Rob Bishop, who is chair of the 10th Amendment Task Force, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would allow two-thirds of state legislatures to repeal a federal law or regulation. This ongoing debate is raising a number of questions:
Is there a chance Bishop's Repeal Amendment will be implemented, and will it help balance the federal system?
Pignanelli: "The U.S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself." — Benjamin Franklin. I wept with joy when I learned of the proposed "State Repeal" amendment. Indeed, I will undertake every effort to ensure passage including prayers, incantations, burning incense, bizarre sacrificial rites — whatever it takes. There are thousands of federal laws and regulations that span the range from absolute idiocy to the legitimate but overly burdensome. Each antagonistic rule and provision will compel some client to retain my lobbyist colleagues and me to stuff the legislative pipelines with repeal bills in every statehouse throughout the country. The 18th Amendment (prohibition of alcohol) was an "economic advantage" to my grandparents and thousands of other families of similar ethnic heritage. It is heartwarming that another constitutional amendment could benefit my generation.
Webb: It's very difficult to amend the Constitution, as it should be. This amendment would be a structural correction, giving states a chance to push back against federal encroachment, precisely as the founders intended. Given serious dysfunction at the federal level, and with big Republican majorities in legislatures, governorships, and the U.S. House, this proposal will be taken seriously. It will take a number of years, but this is the right time for the states to reassert themselves.
Is this focus on federalism just a passing fad, or will something meaningful happen?
Webb: More and more citizens and leaders are recognizing that the federal government can't solve all the problems the nation faces, nor was it ever meant to. Too many federal politicians feel they must take care of every need of every citizen from cradle to grave — and it's just not possible. Our presidents fail because their job description is too big. If the federal government stayed within its constitutional role, it would be efficient, successful — and solvent. This movement is not a passing fad, but it must be approached from a progressive, forward-looking, good-governance perspective, not from an angry, old-fashioned, right-wing, "states' rights" approach.
I'm also hopeful that a presidential candidate will take up the cause, saying that he/she won't try to solve all the nation's problems from Washington but will instead empower states to address the problems with flexibility and innovation.
Pignanelli: There is only one efficient method to restrain the growth of the federal government at the expense of the states: a constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced or restricted as a percentage of GDP. We will know soon whether states' rights advocates are serious (or just blowing hot air) about their cause and aggressively push such constraints.
Is there a need for greater balance between federal and state governments?
Pignanelli: History demonstrates that states are better incubators of innovation in industry and government — a dynamic that must be protected. The gravest threat to states' rights is the pressure from large companies to nationalize regulation because complying with different laws in each state is "too cumbersome."
Webb: Absolutely. The federal government is bankrupt, gridlocked, and incapable of solving the nation's problems. We would be far better off if the states had full responsibility (and funding) for education, health, welfare and many other programs. Certainly, states have their own problems. Some are deeply in debt (but not as bad off as the federal government). Some state-based programs may fail. Some states may fail. But that's better than the entire country failing.
Will Utah politicians play a meaningful role in this debate?
Webb: Rob Bishop is in the thick of the battle. Utah legislators are pushing on several fronts. In a constitutional sense, legislators represent the states, so they have an important constitutional role, even an obligation, to fight to restore the balance.
Pignanelli: Yes. Veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch and freshman Mike Lee will be vocal in the Senate. Congressman Bishop will be engaged in parliamentary moves to starve "Obamacare" and other programs. Rep. Jim Matheson and his Blue Dog Democrats will provide the needed intellectual substance to discussions and actions on the deficit. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, along with local officials, such as Utah House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart and Rep. Carl Wimmer, are likely to capture national media attention.
Important Note: The Beehive state just received a huge compliment. Rick Snyder, the governor-elect of Michigan, just announced he hired Utahn John Nixon (the current director of planning and budget) to serve as his budget director with enhanced powers. Nixon's skills played a role in Utah's award as the "Best Managed State in America." This is the rare public acknowledgement by an eastern state that Utahns are doing something right. We are proud of John and will miss him.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.