Commentary: Timely UVU conference focuses on ‘functional federalism’

I’ve been writing about balanced federalism a great deal lately. I’m doing it because I believe this fundamental and venerable tenet of American constitutional government is part of the solution to the difficult problems facing the nation, including (and especially) the burgeoning federal debt. 

I’m hopeful there will be a resurgence of interest in federalism and structural reforms that will improve and rebalance the federal/state relationship. If we really want to address the nation’s problems, we can’t look to the central government for every solution.

Utah Valley University and its Center for Constitutional Studies made a big contribution to improving the understanding of federalism this week by hosting a three-day Functional Federalism Academy.

The conference was “designed as a unique blend between a traditional academic conference and a workshop for practitioners and state leaders.” The core audience was policymakers and state leaders in the Mountain West region. Academics, policymakers and senior staffers of government associations and agencies explored all aspects of federalism over the three days, especially in the context of the current pandemic crisis.

I was invited to participate in a session along with former Congressman Rob Bishop, who has been a champion of balanced federalism for decades, including during his eight years in the Utah Legislature and 18 years in Congress.

Bishop provided some excellent historical perspective on federalism, outlining how the federal government centralized power over many decades. He correctly faulted the states for voluntarily relinquishing authority granted in the Constitution, mostly in exchange for federal money.

Bishop tried many times in Congress to promote the constitutional provisions of federalism, mostly to no avail. But he said federalism, functioning as intended, could be the salvation of the country.

I was asked to provide a brief history of my experience with former Gov. Mike Leavitt in the mid-1990s when he proposed a Conference of the States to address structural federalism reforms. I was Leavitt’s policy deputy for six years and supported him in this initiative.

We generated support all over the country among state legislators and governors to consider structural federalism reforms that, over time, would lead to a better federal/state balance. The initiative culminated in a federalism summit attended by representatives of a majority of states. It wasn’t the more formal Conference of States we hoped for, but it was the largest effort to re-enthrone balanced federalism since the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

During the UVU session, Bishop and I agreed that we must have structural reform to restore states to their proper constitutional role as co-equal partners with the federal government. It won’t be enough to deal with specific issues or grievances because any progress on issues can quickly be reversed by a new Congress or presidential administration.

Here’s what I mean by “structural reform”: The founders provided a constitutional structure, or tools, for the states to compete on a fair basis with the federal government. Those tools have been lost over many decades by federal aggression (and money), court cases and state neglect. We won’t have permanent, functional federalism until that lost structure, those tools, are replaced.

A discussion of those tools will be provided in a future column.

In another session of the conference, former Gov. Gary Herbert said states and citizens need to stop looking to Washington, D.C. to solve every problem. Tough challenges will be better solved, at lower cost, by states, counties and cities, he said.

Herbert noted the unfathomable and unsustainable federal debt and said, “The best hope for the future of America is with the states.”