Commentary: Why isn’t balanced federalism more of a campaign issue?

I believe politicians are missing out on a great campaign issue by not touting balanced federalism as a way to solve some of America’s biggest challenges.

If handled properly, I think federalism could be a powerful issue that resonates well with voters in races ranging from legislative contests, to governorships, to Congress, to the presidency.

For example, if a congressional candidate is asked why Congress is so dysfunctional and so divided, he or she could properly explain that Congress is trying to do far more than it should be doing. Congress spends an inordinate amount of time in hearings and debates on issues it will never reach consensus on because the country is too diverse to impose the same regulations and laws everywhere.

Congress would be dramatically more effective if it stuck to truly national issues and didn’t try to impose its will on states and local governments on matters best left to them. 

A good case in point is the proposed $15 per hour national wage requirement. Congress has wasted a remarkable amount of time debating this issue, without achieving agreement. The problem is that representatives from wealthy urban areas will never find common ground with those representing rural areas where wages are not as high and a $15-per-hour requirement would hurt businesses.

That’s an issue that should obviously be decided by state and local governments, based on local conditions.   

And there are many more. Much gridlock on issues related to transportation, human services, education, and the environment could be avoided if Congress took a pass in key areas and allowed state and local decision-making. Congress would have a lot less to fight about.

Even the national budget would be in much better shape if Congress left more tax dollars at the state level and let states decide how to spend it. Thousands of state and local elected leaders are much closer to citizens, much more responsive to their wants and needs, than 535 insulated House and Senate members in faraway Washington, D.C.

There is simply not a need for a federal solution to every problem facing every American, yet Congress acts as though there is. The reality is that the federal government has exerted control over so many aspects of our daily lives that it can’t possibly meet all the expectations. The national government was never intended to take care of every need of every citizen from cradle to grave. Our federal leaders have set themselves up for failure.

During a campaign, a congressional candidate could respond to many issue-oriented questions by saying, “That’s not even something the federal government should be involved in.”

Federalism could be a good issue at the legislative and gubernatorial levels, as well, with candidates promising to fight to restore decision-making to state and local levels.

This is certainly not without precedent. Former Gov. Scott Matheson, a well-liked centrist Democrat, made federalism, then usually referred to as “states’ rights” a major issue. He battled the federal government on many fronts, but especially on land management issues. He even wrote a book, “Out of Balance” about his views on federal-state relations. His contemporary Democratic governors Bruce Babbitt (Arizona) and Richard Lamm (Colorado) also greatly chafed under federal mandates.

One of Utah’s most popular governors, Mike Leavitt, also took on federalism as a key policy matter, even mounting a national campaign to attempt to restore some semblance of balance. 

As a campaign issue, balanced federalism can be framed as the progressive, dynamic, innovative, high-tech way to conduct government. The best organizations in the world today operate in a bottom-up, decentralized fashion. This era of crowdsourcing and distributed innovation, powered by millions of networked smartphones, tablets and computers, enable decentralized intelligence and power.  Meanwhile, the federal government operates like an old-fashioned, prescriptive mainframe.

Under a balanced system, states could be laboratories of democracy. Liberal jurisdictions, if they wished, could enjoy big government, broad social programs, extensive regulations and high taxes.

Conservative areas could opt for limited government, low taxes, more individual responsibility and more risk.

This is a pragmatic, forward-looking approach to our original governance model that would actually work even better in the 21st Century. It’s not about partisanship or ideology. It’s about disruptive innovation. It’s about good governance – what works in the information age.

That’s a pretty powerful campaign platform.