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Federalism: The Founders’ Formula for Freedom


Inside the House chamber in Washington D.C., the upper wall is surrounded by the cameos of all the world’s great lawgivers. Moses, as the greatest lawgiver, is the only one with a full face. The others are all side views. The only Americans included are Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, and, ironically, neither signed the Constitution. Mason was actually one of three men who stayed for the entire Constitutional Convention and then refused his assent to the finished product.


When I taught high school, I insisted my kids know why Mason refused to sign. He objected to the document because it did not contain a Bill of Rights. I always hoped, in vain, that some bright student would ask the more pertinent question. The better question would have been not why Mason refused to sign, but why such patriots as Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, Wilson, etc., objected to Mason’s request?


While George Mason insisted on a written list of prohibited practices (a Bill of Rights) to protect citizens, the rest of the Constitutional Convention chose the structural concept of federalism and separation of powers as the means to ensure citizens’ liberty was protected.


“The U.S. style of federalism and balance of power were two complementary strands of power separation—one horizontal and one vertical.”


The U.S. style of federalism and balance of power were two complementary strands of power separation—one horizontal and one vertical. The purpose of both horizontal and vertical power balance was to protect individual liberty, the goal the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. They believed the only way to preserve individual liberty was to check government power. Each branch would check the other branch of the new national government. However, since a national government might not check itself, the national government must also be checked by the states. The 50 states were to be a counterbalance to the national government.


Federalism/separation of powers was the vehicle designed to protect people. Madison, in Federalist
45, envisioned how the vertical separation of powers (federalism) was to operate. He wrote, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution …are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite….The Powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which…concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people…”


“While largely a new political concept, American-style federalism had roots in the Old Testament. Moses developed the concept of federalism in Exodus 18:13-26.”


While largely a new political concept, American-style federalism had roots in the Old Testament. Moses developed the concept of federalism in Exodus 18:13-26. As Moses worked to exhaustion dealing with all the issues brought by the children of Israel, his father-in-law insisted he delegate authority to captains over groups of thousands, hundreds and tens. Only the most unusual issues were to be brought before Moses. This new system of administration divided authority among manageable units. It allowed problems to be solved on the level where the problem originated—in other words, government closest to the people governed best. That was essentially federalism.


The vertical balance of power between the national government and state governments was the critical component of our constitutional system of government. Over time, however, Congress and the courts slowly chipped away at the vertical separation of powers. Beginning with the Progressive Era, the American system changed and the principle safeguards of federalism were weakened. Today, most people are unfamiliar with the meaning of federalism, or of its foundational role in our system of governance. Sadly, this benign neglect includes many of our national leaders.


Our country is at a crossroads. Americans are fed up. They’re frightened by an exploding debt and frustrated with an unresponsive federal government. They’re tired of a sagging economy and unelected bureaucrats who believe Washington always knows what’s best. A recent poll found that four out of five Americans don’t trust Washington. Another poll found that eighty-six percent of Americans think the federal government is “broken.”


Americans are ready for change—real change that gives them, not Washington, greater control over their own lives. They don’t want new leaders in Washington running a slightly less intrusive government. Instead, Americans of all political stripes want more choice, greater accountability, and a more flexible and responsive government. That is precisely what federalism can deliver.


I am convinced the best way to demonstrate commitment to real change is by embracing federalism. Only by pursuing a federalist agenda can we disperse power from Washington, promote liberty and limited government, provide greater choice and deliver a more effective and responsive governance to the people.


Leaders in Washington need to show the American people that we have a comprehensive plan that doesn’t impose a certain ideology or party platform on them. Instead, we need to tell them that decisions should be made locally, by individuals living in their communities, not by politicians in Washington.


“Federalism is not a concept of either the right or the left. It is not a Republican or a Democrat idea. Both sides have something to gain under a federalist revival.”


Federalism is not a concept of either the right or the left. It is not a Republican or a Democrat idea. Both sides have something to gain under a federalist revival. We may disagree with some of the decisions some states ultimately make, but we must stand firm to the belief that the Constitution was designed in such a way that gives the people the power to make those choices.


Many advocates of national solutions do not believe federalism can work today. They believe that today’s complex modern society can only function properly when the national government establishes the rules. They’re wrong. As LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy Daily has said:


“Most breakthroughs in governance are already coming from the states. Could such innovation, creativity and energy ever be spawned by the top-down, mainframe dinosaur that is Washington? Federalism can actually perform better in the age of Google and Facebook than it did 200 years ago.””


“It is precisely the Information Age, the Internet Age, that could enable a new, golden age of federalism. Today, states and local governments can operate in an intelligent network, collaborating, cooperating, adopting “best practices,” creating an upward spiral in competency, improved management and delivery of services. They can adopt standards and pass model legislation to provide needed consistency for multistate businesses. With the amazing power of networking and advanced tools of technology, states can fulfill Justice Louis Brandeis’s vision as laboratories of democracy. Most breakthroughs in governance are already coming from the states. Could such innovation, creativity and energy ever be spawned by the top-down, mainframe dinosaur that is Washington? Federalism can actually perform better in the age of Google and Facebook than it did 200 years ago.”


We are a nation of creativity, of diversity, of freedom. We need innovators and a new generation of ideas. Let us learn from the successes and the failures of one another. This nation is too great, too broad, and too diverse for one set of ideas to rule from sea to sea. California is not Kansas. Alabama is not Alaska. And Massachusetts is not Utah.


Federalism is the answer. Federalism gives people choice and options. Federalism keeps government within the reach of the individual, and keeps government in its place. Today, the people have no control over the vast federal bureaucracies. Federalism is the mechanism by which power can be returned to the people.


I am convinced that now is the time for a federalist agenda because federalism is simply the best, and the constitutionally based bastion for limited government, choice, and individual liberty.


Congressman Rob Bishop has represented Utah since 2003, and is the co-founder of the
Congressional 10th Amendment Task Force.


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