Opinion briefs: In our quest for sustainability, how about ‘sustainable’ federal finances? . . . A small federal pre-emption of state regulations

One glaring omission in sustainability goals. We hear a great deal about “sustainability” these days. The goal of sustainability is being applied to every aspect of our lives. We talk about sustainable energy and natural resources. Sustainable homes, sustainable work places, sustainable communities, sustainable work processes. Most businesses, universities and non-profits have offices of sustainability. Sustainability is part of the mission of most government agencies.

Sustainability is good, of course. According to definitions of the word, If we do things in sustainable ways we are meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We’re protecting the environment. We’re avoiding overconsumption. We’re thinking about our children and grandchildren in all of our decisions and we’re sustaining the resources they will need.  

Commitments to sustainability are ubiquitous. In fact, it seems the only place where we’re not concerned about sustainability is in the nation’s finances, especially its deficit spending and the soon-to-be $30 trillion national debt. We’re very vocal about leaving a clean environment and good economic opportunity to our children and grandchildren. But not many policymakers or opinion leaders seem worried about leaving an ever-escalating debt to future generations that will be essentially impossible to pay off. If we really care about sustainability, we ought to care about sustainable federal finances.

Or, perhaps we will defy gravity. Perhaps we will be the first nation in the history of the world to borrow our way to prosperity and maintain that prosperity forever, while continuing to add to the debt and never paying it off. Perhaps we will break all the rules of economics and common sense and still prosper. Perhaps ever-increasing debt is sustainable.

Or perhaps we don’t really believe in sustainability.

Does a good cause require federal pre-emption of state regulations? Last Wednesday I was on Boyd Matheson’s KSL Radio show talking about balanced federalism and the problem of the federal government growing too large, overbearing and prescriptive. The segment was followed, ironically, by a segment with Sen. Mike Lee who discussed legislation he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Diane Feinstein. It would pre-empt state licensure regulations by requiring that professional licenses of military spouses be recognized in any state where the couple moves, as assigned by the military.

This legislation obviously supports a good cause and solves a problem. I don’t have any issue with the concept that such licenses should be recognized by all states. In fact, I believe licensure requirements in many states are too broad and onerous.

Also, I know for a fact that Lee is a strong proponent of the 10th Amendment and balanced federalism. He dislikes federal encroachment in state prerogatives. Lee noted that Congress is doing this preemption under its national defense responsibility. National defense is obviously a federal role.

But would be nice if the military, or members of Congress like Lee, would go to the states first and suggest an interstate compact or model legislation recognizing professional licensure of military spouses. It might be a little more difficult and take a little longer but it would avoid forcing the states to comply with another federal mandate on such a topic as state professional licensing.

Some cooperative agreements among states already exist. I’m aware that Utah, for example, recognizes Idaho licenses for some construction trades. Such interstate agreements ought to be expanded. I imagine most states would agree that a military spouse who is a cosmetologist or a barber should not to have to go through the licensure process in every new state.  

This is admittedly not a giant issue and most states might not mind being pre-empted. But when facing issues like this, it might be nice to consider state-based solutions first, instead of immediately making a federal law and forcing states to comply. States might have suggestions to come up with an even better solution.