Governments Should Be Collective Force for Good
By Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island
Federalism—the principle delineating the respective powers of our central government and those of the states—is an important foundation of American democracy. While constitutional theorists debate the statutory implications of federalism in a legal arena, the decisions of our national and state officeholders are the application of these separate powers—though often overlapping goals—as manifested in Washington, D.C., and across our nation.
My own public service in Rhode Island—a path from City Hall in Warwick to the United States Senate to the State House in Providence—has exposed me to the synergies and inevitable balancing act among policymakers at each level of government. Whether representing Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate or as its governor today, government has always represented our aspirations as a people—a collective united force for good.
To me, an ideal vision of federalism is a harmonious partnership between a forward-thinking, stable federal government and “the laboratories of democracy,” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis characterized the states in 1932, that are the building blocks of political consensus and effective national public policy.
As a U.S. senator, serving the best interests of the people of Rhode Island frequently overlapped with an important function of the office as a shield against the overreach of the “imperial presidency” about which pre-eminent U.S. historian and presidential speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously wrote. Two examples that resonate most deeply are the votes I cast against military action in Iraq and later against then-United Nations nominee John Bolton.
In each case, President Bush seemed to get his way. By a wide margin, Congress authorized the war in Iraq. And though Bolton’s nomination did not win a majority vote within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the presidential recess appointment loophole enabled the administration to push Bolton into the post. In sum, my Senate tenure was marked less by a concern of states breaching federal dictates than by the reality of an unchecked executive that preyed on the emotions of fear and anger to increase its power.
The governor’s office has offered a different lens into the concept of federalism. Federal support has been essential to Rhode Island’s economic recovery as well as to ongoing work to protect our people and our environment. Unlike my rockier relationship with the executive branch while in the Senate, as governor, the states quickly became integral to the centerpiece of President Obama’s legislative agenda—the expansion of affordable health care that promises to improve our long-term fiscal health. In turn, Rhode Island’s Affordable Care Act-funded health exchange has been an example of successful federal-state collaboration.
There are still bound to be differences of opinion. In a meeting with governors, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that we were each the commanders of our respective National Guards. I asked if that meant I could bring our troops back home as an opponent of continued U.S. military operation in the Middle East; the answer was an emphatic “no.” In another—more successful—instance of state autonomy, we in Rhode Island stood our ground in opposition to the death penalty when a federal case could have initiated capital punishment.
In the wake of the recent U.S. government shutdown, it is important to remember that government—federal and state—helps safeguard our freedoms as a people. I was among a number of Congressional officials who voted against the Bush-era tax cuts for high-income earners. But when the tallies were counted and the Bush administration was victorious, the dissenting voters—myself included—did not vow to close the government.
From the Senate to the governor’s office, I believe in a very basic truth in American democracy: There will always be healthy argument about political choices and the delegation of powers, but a bureaucratic stalemate is never an excuse to impair a working government of, by and for the people.