When first elected to Congress, I knew there would be challenges. Having been Speaker of the House in Utah, I realized that the federal and state partnership so brilliantly designed by our Founding Fathers was out of balance. I recognized how the rules and regulations from Washington, D.C., prevented state and local lawmakers from solving problems; the over-involvement of the federal government paralyzed states.
Look at the Medicaid program. For every dollar spent on Medicaid in Utah, the federal government pays 72 cents. Along with this "partnership" comes burdensome restrictions that prevent states from providing the best quality care for the most needy Utahns. Furthermore, when Utah wants to make changes, it must run to the federal government and beg for permission or risk losing funding. This is not a long-term solution. Washington is bankrupt, but that doesn't mean our states should be, too.
Another egregious example of the federal government getting in the way of states involves student loans for higher education. There used to be two programs for administering federal student loans, the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) and the Direct Education Loan program (DEL). Under FFEL, the state of Utah instituted a state-private partnership to provide student loans. This partnership helped students by offering benefits like lower rates for on-time payments and automatic payments. However, a rider placed on the Obamacare bill eliminated the entire FFEL program. Now the only way to get federal loans is through the DEL — directly though bureaucrats in the federal Education Department. Students lost an innovative and less costly loan program and were needlessly forced into a more expensive federal program.
The balance of power concept, especially the "vertical" separation of powers between state and federal levels, has been seriously eroded in recent years. While I was in the state Legislature, we repeatedly made decisions not based on what was best for the state, but on what types of federal matching funds were available. More pernicious were the decisions based on the threat of federal fund withdrawals. In a recent Utah session, the primary argument against two bills was not the merit of the ideas but the amount of federal funds that might be withheld. I could point to an overpass built solely because of a 10 to 1 federal match opportunity. I can point to a computer system the state neither wanted nor used, but bought because of the risk of losing federal money. Every state can easily replicate these examples.
Two groups are responsible for this situation. The first group is the power-hungry members of Congress who have dangled "free" federal money in front of cash-starved states for 60 years. Each piece of greenback bait dangled before a state legislator was accompanied with the promise of financial salvation. When the bait was taken, the federal government reeled in the states with mandates on everything from the computer programs to motorcycle helmets. The federal government tipped the vertical separation of power in favor of Washington and endangered the liberties of all Americans in the process.
The second group, states, have been abused, but they are not blameless. Starting in the mid-1960s, states freely gave up their self-determination for the cheap fix of free federal money and accompanying mandates. States should have been strong and declined the federal fix, but regardless of blame for this situation, the fact remains that our nation is threatened by the absence of proper power equilibrium between state and federal levels. This should be unacceptable to all.
That's why I'm supporting the Federalism in Action Project
Efforts like this give me hope and energy in this trying economic time. As we watch the national debt tick up toward $17 trillion, the citizens and lawmakers in the states are working to solve problems, and that, my friends, is federalism in action.
Rob Bishop represents Utah's First Congressional District.