BIDLACK: Think locally, act locally — and embrace federalism

Author: Hal Bidlack - November 8, 2017 - Updated: November 7, 2017

Hal Bidlack

As a former congressional candidate this may seem like an odd thing for me to say, but folks, you are paying way too much attention to our national government, and way too little attention to the state and local governments.

I admit, most of my adult life had been dedicated to working at the national level of things. During my Air Force career, I commanded nuclear weapons – definitely a national level thing – as well as working at the Pentagon, the State Department, and twice working summers at the National Security Council at the White House. After retirement, I spent four years on the staff of a United States senator. And in that last one, I had a very interesting 25 minute phone call. More on that in a bit.

So let me explain.

In your daily life your attention is often drawn to the White House and Capitol Hill, with occasional glances at the Supreme Court. Yet I argue, gentle reader, that your attention should be drawn more often to City Hall than to Washington D.C. Whether you live in Denver, Colorado Springs, Parachute, or Lamar or the beautiful Colorado spaces between, the public servants that most affect your daily lives are likely no more than a few miles away.

Most folks will remember being taught, way back in civics class, about the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial. But hopefully you also recall the other fundamental principle – federalism — because federalism is just as important to you as any other division of government.

Federalism is the “horizontal” cut that divides government in all three branches into national, state and local governments. For example, the national government gets to decide issues of war and peace – a state can’t make a treaty with France. But a state’s government gets to decide on most education issues. At the local level, we see government setting up building codes and fire departments.  And in all these cases, no other level of government can “order” a change, because of, you guessed it, federalism.

And that’s what makes us different from many other democracies, like the aforementioned France. In theory, the minister of education in the current French government can look up what topic every third-grader in the country is talking about that day. So France’s “unitary” government makes them very different from us — that, and the bread. Those two things.

This gift of the founders — federalism — is one that seeks to tie the elected officials as closely to those who elected them as possible. For example, here in Colorado Springs, we’ve just seen a summer of massive road repair and repaving. Our mayor was able to convince voters a while back (or at least those few who take part in local elections) to fund road repairs. Thus the rough and pitted roads that were repaired will impact the tens of thousands of cars that will not need front end alignments as often. That likely impacts your lives more than, say, the U.S. Navy.

Which brings me back to the phone call. Back when I was working for my senator, I took a call from a very unhappy gentleman who lived in Falcon, Colorado. It seems that a large pothole had opened up in front of his home, right in the middle of his city street, that was epic both in size and depth. There may have been a Smart car or two down in there. The caller demanded that the senator, personally come to his home to view, and then get fixed, this tire-eating monster. During that 25 minute call, I offered the gent the phone numbers of the city road department, the county folks, his own city council member’s contact information, even the mayor’s number. Because, you know, federalism!

Nope – he wanted the senator, because the senator was the government, and he paid his (and my) salaries. I never found the words to help him understand that this wasn’t France, and that he really did, in fact, want to call the city road repair shop just down the way from his home.

And so if I may offer a bit of advice — care about a lot of issues, and contact your elected officials to advocate for what you think is important, be it our relations with North Korea or a pothole. But do take a moment to figure out whom you should call. Hint — for the pothole, it’s not the president.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.