NCSL and Federalism
Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Boston, MA. NCSL leadership invited me to present on the work we are doing with our Utah Commission on Federalism that I chair to restore the structure of the governing partnership between the national government and the states.
Right before my presentation, internationally prominent pollster Frank Luntz spoke to the entire conference of state legislators concerning the national angst brought to the surface by the last presidential election and the continued exasperating sense that Washington is fundamentally dysfunctional.
He shared that his polling research reveals more clearly than anything else that the American people are not looking for a shifting of dollars or responsibilities in Washington; they are looking for state leaders to lead out in a restructure of government that restores their voice and local control, effectiveness and accountability.
Following his remarks to the whole conference, Mr. Luntz came into our federalism committee meeting, reemphasized his findings, and said that restoring our unique governing structure that divides power between the national government and the states is the most important thing taking place in the entire conference. As a result, NCSL will now be forming a federalism committee to restore our local voice and accountability through restructuring the balance of governing powers between the federal government and the states.
While in Boston, we took the opportunity to visit Lexington and Concord. I learned something there about the American identity that has changed me forever. In grade school, I learned about “the shot heard ‘round the world”. But last week, I stood on the Lexington green where seventy-seven men formed a line, literally and figuratively, that they intended to defend with their lives — and it changed the world.
The British under King George meant to subdue the will and spirit of the people of Boston to the unquestionable rule of a monarch as an example to all of the Colonies. An inscription on the Lexington monument captures the essence of the American spirit embodied by those seventy-seven men, including the eight who sacrificed their lives that fateful day: “They nobly dar’d to be free.”
These fathers and farmers, hapless militiamen, must have known it meant certain death to stand against an army of 700 British troops. And yet, because “They nobly dar’d to be free,” they drew a line on the Lexington green and stood their ground.
Those not killed at Lexington were scattered and the British troops moved on to seize the stash of weapons and gunpowder at Concord. Here 400 American militiamen – a glorified title for ordinary townsfolk who simply yearned to maintain their right to determine their own pursuit of happiness – met the British troops.
The plaque leading up to the Old North Bridge speaks volumes about why they stood against an overpowering oppressive force:
"Here the resolve of the citizens willing to risk their lives for the ideals of liberty and self-determination was instrumental in the formation of the American identity.”
Word spread throughout the neighboring towns that Lexington and Concord were under attack by the British. Soon thousands came running to their defense. The balance of power had shifted and the British troops retreated for Boston.
Hearing of the siege at Lexington and Concord, the Danvers Minutemen ran sixteen miles in four hours to repel the British troops. In 1843, a young historian, Mellen Chamberlain, interviewed Captain Levi Preston, who at 91 years of age was the last survivor of the battle of Lexington and Concord. Sixty-seven years later, Judge Chamberlain recounted his interview to the Concord, Massachusetts Sons of the American Revolution as follows:
"Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?" The old man, bowed beneath the weight of years, raised himself upright, and turning to me said:
"Why did I go?''
"Yes,” I replied; “my histories tell me that you men of the Revolution took up arms against 'intolerable oppressions.'" "What were they?”
“Oppressions? I didn't feel them.''
"What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?"
"I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them."
"Well, what then about the tea-tax?"
"Tea-tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard."
"Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty."
"Never heard of 'em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts's Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack."
"Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?"
"Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."
And that, gentlemen, is the ultimate philosophy of the American Revolution … no other words known to me ever expressed the actual condition of affairs with more historic truth or more tersely. For the attitude of the colonists was not that of slaves seeking liberty, but of freemen - freemen for five generations - resisting political servitude.
What does all this history have to do with the NCSL meeting, the comments of Frank Luntz, and the work of our Federalism Commission?
Those who fought against impossible odds at the peril of their lives and livelihoods and won, engineered an unprecedented system “to secure the blessings of liberty to [themselves] and [their] posterity.”
During my presentation I showed a photo I took in Concord of a broken-down bicycle outside a store to illustrate the point. The Framers of the Constitution divided governing powers delegated by the people between the national government and the states – like two separate tires on a bicycle. They also provided specific limits to the governing powers divided between the national government (“few and defined”) and the states (“numerous and indefinite”) – like the pressure limit for the tires on the bicycle. Then they provided that the two governments would check and control each other “as a double security to the rights of the people” – our liberty to govern ourselves and determine our own pursuit of happiness.
This unique structure of government where governing power is clearly divided, limited and controlled by independent checks is called federalism. This governing system was painstakingly designed by the Framers to secure our local, individual and independent voice to govern ourselves with the greatest degree of efficiency, effectiveness and accountability, despite being a large nation of distinctive states with a wide variety of differing interests.
However, like the man who killed the goose to get to the golden eggs, as a nation, we have for decades put the promise of politicians and policies over the maintenance and defense of the incomparable structure created to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Electing new “riders” in Washington who promise to “steer” our dysfunctional “bicycle of state” more to the right or to the left is not going to solve your unique needs or the concerns of our distinct state and communities. From Utah, we are leading out in building a coalition of states and national organizations like NCSL to fix the root problem – a restructuring of our divided, limited and independently checked governing system that secures your voice and your right to determine your own pursuit of happiness.
Supreme Court Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Scalia hauntingly warned what is at stake if we overlook the work of defending our governing structure:
Structural protections—notably, the restraints imposed by federalism and separation of powers—are less romantic and have less obvious a connection to personal freedom than the provisions of the Bill of Rights or the Civil War Amendments. Hence they tend to be undervalued or even forgotten by our citizens. … the Framers considered structural protections of freedom the most important ones, for which reason they alone were embodied in the original Constitution and not left to later amendment. The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril. NFIB v. Sebelius, (2012).
Fortunately, we don’t have to draw a line on the Lexington green to restore “the ideals of liberty and self-determination.” This “American identity” was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which empowers and requires states to maintain and defend the structure of our government.
I ran for office in 2010 for this very reason. We are making inroads in Utah and nationally. Next month, I have been selected to represent Utah at the historic assembly of states called by the Arizona Legislature to consider rules for a convention of states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution for proposing a federal balanced budget amendment.
I pledge to you that as long as you want me to serve as your representative, I will work tirelessly to restore our amazing governing structure that secures our right to govern ourselves at the most local level and determine our own pursuit of happiness.