The inaugural meeting of Utah’s Commission on Federalism was held last Tuesday, July 2nd, at the Capitol. The meeting offered a skeptic like me some hope of some real progress by the members of the commission, and in turn the legislature, in the balance of power between the ever-expanding federal government and the states.
The reason I was skeptical is because I had previously attended a meeting of the Federalism Subcommittee, which was dissolved and replaced by the new Commission on Federalism, and I was not impressed by the progress or the potential of the subcommittee.
The newly created commission has one major advantage over its predecessor: it is chaired by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. That alone gives the commission more clout and influence with the legislature as a whole. In addition to the chairpersons, the committee includes two senators, three representatives, and five legislative staffers (general counsel, policy analysts, and a legislative secretary).
The Commission was created by HB 131, which passed the House and Senate was signed into law this past session. According to the bill, the commission “may evaluate a federal law” and determine whether or not the law is “authorized by the United States Constitution or violates the principle of federalism.” If a law is determined to be unconstitutional the commission can then communicate with one of Utah’s U.S. Senators or Representatives “to discuss the evaluation of federal law and any possible remedy.” The law also directs the commission’s chair to communicate with other states to “coordinate the evaluation of and response to federal law” that the commission has deemed unconstitutional.
Speaker Becky Lockhart made it clear to the other members that she was taking the new commission’s purpose seriously. In her opening statement Lockhart said, “It’s important that those of us on the commission realize this isn’t just for fun.” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser echoed Lockhart on the importance of the federalism and argued our constitutional system was created to avoid having too much concentrated power.
Representative Rob Bishop addressed the commission and offered some strong words on the reality of federalism. He talked about how FDR’s “New Deal” greatly weakened federalism. “Before the New Deal,” he said, “people always looked to the states first. They never even thought about going to federal agencies.” The massive expansion of federal power since that time has brought with it a host of side effects that cannot be alleviated by greater centralized power. “I believe with every fiber of my being,” said Bishop, “that federalism is the answer to the nations problems.”
The Congressman then went on to give some advice to the state legislators on the commission: “Just passing a resolution isn’t enough, I would hope that you would work with us ahead of time” in order to allow the federal delegation to help the state legislature in its efforts. “Another thing you could do is quit taking the money,” said Bishop, referring to billions of dollars of federal money that make up over 30% of Utah’s state budget. “At some point,” said Bishop, “if you want to get out of the trap, you are going to have to let go of the cheese.”
Much like Representative Bishop, we believe that federalism is the answer to many of our nation’s problems. We hope that the Commission on Federalism can take some of the rhetoric shared in the meeting and turn it into coalitions, legislation (with “teeth”), and other actions that will restore some of the balance of power back to the states.