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The Case for Federalism: The Founders’ forgotten formula for freedom

May 10, 2010
Op-Ed and Speech

For my whole life, Republicans have tried to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Yet, over the last five decades, the federal government has continued to grow. Federal spending surpassed $100 billion per year in 1962. It reached $1 trillion in 1987. In 2010, federal spending will surpass $3.5 trillion.

The federal government has grown under both Democrats and Republicans; the best that can be said is that federal spending has sometimes grown more slowly under Republican control. Leaders in Washington from both parties have shown themselves either unwilling or unable of actually shrinking the federal government.

Sadly, the current federal system is rigged in favor of government growth. The incentives, bureaucracy, power structures, and institutions in Washington have all evolved to help the federal government acquire more power and influence, not less. This is not likely to change unless we fundamentally change our approach.

It has been said that doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results, is insanity. Simple calls for shrinking the federal government have not worked in the past; why should we think they will today?

It's time for Republicans to turn the page. Our ultimate goal need not change. Our tactics must.

Republicans need to start by letting the public understand that we are not opposed to all government programs, but to inefficient, unaccountable, one-size-fits-all, Washington-led government programs. We need to explain that we aim not to destroy government, but to return government to the people. Instead of just calling for a smaller federal government, we need to offer citizens more flexible, creative, and informed state and local governments that they control.

The only way to bring about this change is federalism. While "federalism" may not be a commonly understood or appreciated term today, it is the only constitutionally based, effective, and theoretically consistent means to bring about the systemic change of government that people want. A large majority of people care about choice, options, flexibility, and freedom. Those things are precisely what federalism brings.

Federalism should not be just one proposal among many; it should be America's fundamental vision for government. If we hope to finally control the federal government, federalism needs to be the framework that undergirds all our proposals.

Federalism need not be a partisan issue. Liberals need to understand that a smaller federal government doesn't necessarily mean less government overall — it just means a government closer to the people. It means less concentration of power, and the right of local governments to grow or shrink according to the desires of the people who reside in the area. Meanwhile, conservatives need to understand that there are people in this country who do want a robust public sector, and that in regions where this desire is common, federalism will create one.

This is not yesterday's states'-rights arguments. It's much bigger than that. This is about better governance. This is about greater policy choice and flexibility. This is about breaking up big, inefficient, unresponsive government and returning power to the people.

Washington will not give up power voluntarily. Citizens will have to take this power. They will need to elect leaders who are willing to leave Washington less powerful than it was when they arrived.

Americans today are fed up with Congress, and rightfully so. They want real change, not similar policies under different leadership. But the latter is largely what they've gotten. If we Republicans are going to make a serious play at governing this country again, let's go big. Let's offer the American people real choice and a real vision for a better government. Let's advance the argument that dispersing government functions is the best way that Americans, both conservatives and liberals, can achieve their policy goals.

The coming fight over federalism won't be easy. The transition I envision will take careful planning and many years to implement. But its success is vital to the survival of the United States as a free and strong nation.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah) is founder of the 10th Amendment Task Force