Today, the far right has pretty much co-opted the issue of restoring a proper balance in the federal system. Conservative candidates and incumbents are trumpeting states’ rights and attacking the federal government with great gusto.
It’s a winning issue because the vast majority of voters are angry at the federal government. Polls show confidence in Congress is near an all-time low, and voters are far more trusting and supportive of state and local governments.
However, the push for better balance in the federal system shouldn’t be a priority just for arch-conservatives. There are plenty of good reasons for mainstream Republicans and Democrats to be strong advocates of states and local governments and to be skeptical of further growth and centralization at the federal level.
In fact, Democrats and moderates have an excellent model in former Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson, who was a big champion of balanced federalism. Matheson took a pragmatic, sensible approach to state-federal relations. He called it “progressive federalism.” He obviously didn’t use the ideological rhetoric of the far right, but he believed strongly that a better balance in federal-state relations was needed, and he had some big battles with the federal government on a number of issues.
Matheson even wrote a book, “Out of Balance,” after he left office, with the theme that states need to play a bigger role in the federal system. Since that book was published in 1986, the federal government has grown dramatically in size, more power has been centralized in Washington, the federal deficit has expanded to mind-boggling levels, Congress is immobilized in partisan bickering, and Washington can’t resolve the country’s biggest problems like entitlements and immigration.
Were he still alive, it’s likely Matheson would be even more concerned today about restoring balance in the federal system.
Here are a few excerpts from the book:
Page 275, from Matheson’s 2nd Inaugural Address, Jan 5, 1981: “But today we have the sense that our system is not as responsive as it once was, that government has grown too distant, and that our lives are governed less by us and more by forces beyond our control. We have come to realize that reliance on centralized power reaches frustrating limits, that the federal government cannot do it all, and should not do it all. The democratic ideals to which we are committed require that we seek to revitalize the federal system, to return to the states and communities a far greater hand in deciding our future, to bring government back home.”
Page 276: “Only by restoring to states and localities a strong hand in shaping their future and only by exercising these powers creatively can we hope to progress in a way that preserves rather than disrupts the way of life we cherish and the sense of community that brings us together and carries our values from one generation to the next. If we would renew our democratic ideals through a revitalized federal system, we must at the same time affirm the principles of toleration and mutual respect that make democratic government both possible and desirable.”
Page 270: “I welcome a return of power and responsibility to state government. The system has been out of balance. The transformation is likely to cause pain but will inevitably lead to a healthier national economy, new responsibilities for state and local government and a significant, but more focused, federal role in domestic affairs.”
Utah moderates and Democrats ought to get on the federalism bandwagon. It’s not just a right-wing or ideological issue. As Scott Matheson understood, balanced federalism is about good governance. It’s about more responsive government. It’s about government closer to home. It’s about making government more accountable. Those are things Democrats, Republicans, moderates and conservatives should all agree on.