Federalism

Is Congress Valid?

“Is Congress valid?”

This was the question one of my bright, young American Federalism students at Utah Valley University asked last week, immediately steering the focus of the class toward the idea that states can, and in fact must, pull together to restore our unique constitutional division of governing roles and responsibilities known as federalism.

We were discussing the first chapter of Robert G. Natelson’s book The Original Constitution. The first chapter addresses the common experience, tradition, values and principles of the founding generation, which made constitutional consent possible. The ensuing discussion centered on whether, as a people today, we still have enough in common for the states to come together, as in an Article V convention of states for example, to discuss and propose changes for making government more efficient, effective and more accountable to the American people.

One student noted that some are advocating today for doing away with the First Amendment. Another reflected that the political makeup of state legislatures is skewed in favor of one party over the other. To the dismay of the class, another student remarked that two-thirds of all adults in this country cannot pass the citizenship test (which another of their classmates had just passed on her way to becoming a United States citizen). And so, the discussion went until the big question.

“Well then, is Congress valid?” she asked. “Congress is made up of representatives chosen by this same people. If we don’t believe representatives from the states can gather and discuss and propose solutions, is Congress valid?”

“Say that again,” I prompted, as I wrote on the board, “Is Congress valid?”

“What is a congress?” I asked the class.

One student called out, “Isn’t it a group of baboons?”

“Only on Facebook,” I chided. “What is a lower ‘c’ congress?” I probed.

A few of my Gen Z students, whose electronic devices are merely an extension of their beings, blurted out in unison, “a formal meeting of delegates for discussion and usually action on some question.”

Definition of congress

con·​gress |  \ ˈkäŋ-grəs

2a formal meeting of delegates for discussion and usually action on some question.

Source: Merriam-Webster online dictionary

A light bulb immediately went on for the whole class, professor included.

There were many congresses of the colonies and of the states before “the Congress” was established under the U.S. Constitution. If “the Congress” chosen by this people is valid, why would “a congress” of the states chosen by the same people to restore governing efficiency, effectiveness and accountability not be equally valid?

Given that “the Congress” has an approval rating that has hovered somewhere near single digits for decades, has amassed a metastasizing mountain of debt and has generally abrogated its non-delegable duties to a single executive and otherwise to unelected bureaucrats; shouldn’t we suppose that we could do far better by formally convening “a congress” of the states, who have substantially higher approval ratings, who are bound by and largely adhere to balanced budget restraints and who are directly accountable to their neighbors?

At an ALEC States & Nation Policy Summit one year, I asked a sitting member of Congress, “Why doesn’t Congress observe the equal protection of law and fundamental fairness when it comes to western states?”

The response? “Congress doesn’t care about those things.”

I was stunned! Then I was angry at Congress. Then, as I reflected on this exchange during the long flight home, it hit me: “Congress doesn’t care about ‘those things’ because it doesn’t have to.” Then, as a state legislator, I was angry at myself, because it is the very nature of our singular governing system, as well as the constitutional duty of state legislators, to be ready and willing and to act as a congress in order to make the Congress care about “those things.

As we celebrate the 232nd anniversary of the framing of, in the words of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man,” perhaps it’s time for “a congress” of states to convene “a formal meeting of delegates for discussion and … action on [the] question” of restoring the constitutional divisions in the roles and responsibilities of the national government and the states, in order to render our government more efficient, effective and accountable once again to the American people.

If you are ready and willing to act as “a congress” of states, reach out to me and Karla Jones at the Center to Restore the Balance of Government.


In Depth: Federalism

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