In a show of government waste at its finest, the Utah Legislature’s Commission on Federalism met this morning at the State Capitol. While the finer points of dual sovereignty are certainly worth arguing, this sort of grad seminar style discussion should be out of place in the legislature, where more concrete policy making would be a better use of resources.
Congressman Rob Bishop was the commission’s premier witness. Although his years spent as a teacher leave him long winded, he is nothing if not well spoken and intelligent. He’s also secure enough in his person to avoid coming across as condescending — a feat his colleague Senator Mike Lee, also prone to long winded lectures, has so far been unable to master. In fact, I quite like hearing Bishop speak. But his support for regional sovereignties has me concerned.
Bishop is right that the U.S. Government exists under a complicated, though very successful, system of dual sovereignty. (I’ll note only in passing that this puts aside issues of original sovereignty that are actually vested in the people as members of the democratic body). The question of where state sovereignty begins and federal sovereignty ends is well worth debating outside of the legislature. But introducing the complicated question of regional sovereignty is an altogether different matter.
I’ll admit that Bishop did not directly come out in favor of undoing all of Abraham Lincoln’s good work, but the argument falls basically along the same lines. Bishop thinks that one way to skirt the power of the federal government is by creating interstate compacts. For Bishop, the East (read: liberals) doesn’t understand how we do things out here in the West (read: conservatives). Presumably, the argument works both ways, and we Westerners don’t know how to make sense of Eastern ways; the Midwest, Northwest, and South each have equally incompatible ways of getting things done.
The concerning thing, especially as the country becomes more and more polarized along political lines (to the detriment of even more dangerous lines like creeping class distinctions), is that perhaps Bishop is right. Perhaps the American experiment is just too unwieldy to function in a coherent and productive manner. And perhaps smaller, regional democracies are the answer to managing public lands, social welfare programs, and other cooperative programs currently being administered by the federal government.
I’m not convinced though. I’d like to think that there is still something great enough about the United States that it is worth keeping that united bit in there. And although philosophical reflections about federalism might make for interesting legislative distractions, it certainly doesn’t bring us any closer to creating workable, localizable solutions that could prove beneficial not only for Utah, but for America as well.