Governing and the weight of responsibility

Authored by Bishop Davidson

Rep. Bishop Davidson represents District 13 in the Missouri House of Representatives. His district is just west of Springfield in the southwestern part of the state. Davidson was elected to his first two-year term in November 2020. He recently spoke with American Habits senior editor Ray Nothstine.

You seem to have a background in reorienting discussions toward first principles. What attracted you to be involved with politics and state government?

Rep. Bishop Davidson: Honestly, a month before I announced my campaign, I had long hair and a big beard. I was not thinking about politics, at least not retail politics in any way. An opportunity presented itself, and as I started researching the candidates that were in the field already, I realized these guys might vote the way that I’d like them to vote quite a bit of the time. We might agree on 80, 90% of the issues. Still, I didn’t feel like they would be able to express why they were voting the way they were voting.

For me, it’s important to understand the why. Otherwise, the Republican Party starts to drift. That is evident throughout history. Republicans look like the Democrat Party from just 10 years ago, and that drifts toward centralized government, centralized power, that drifts toward the unlimited power of the state. I think that is displayed over the last 100 years. It’s happened because people stopped asking “Why?” Essentially, they stopped expecting people to know why they were voting the way they were voting.

You have a video on social media about Restoring American Federalism. It has a much different feel than the partisan angst that dominates so much of our political content today. What prompted putting that together?

Davidson: If you ask me what my favorite political writings are, I’d say the “Federalist Papers.” I love “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville. I have a portrait of him behind me up on the wall in my office. I’ve always been more interested in the academic side of limited government conservatism. I’ve always been interested in the why and the philosophy of politics.

I just wanted to put something out there that expressed those views, and it was a longer video, at about six or seven minutes. I also was trying to respond at that time to President Joe Biden taking office, and all the executive orders and proclamations from that office. I thought it was politically relevant as I was coming into the Missouri State House, and Biden was coming into the White House, that we reestablish those lines that need to exist if we want a republic to move forward in a productive and healthy way.

That was the impetus for the video. It’s something I’ve believed for a long time. I’m now excited to utilize the platform that the people have given me to talk about those important issues, particularly reinforcing our system of federalism.

This is putting it mildly, but we have a broken federal government today. You can just look at all the fights we have about the debt ceiling and our $30-plus trillion debt. I think one of the things that’s interesting to me was the pushback that we had in Missouri and Florida to DOJ officials coming in and doing election monitoring.

It seemed like when the federal government got put on their heels a bit, they didn’t push back. They said, “Okay, you guys have rights here in Missouri, you guys have rights here in Florida.” Do you think that’s a good thing?

Davidson: Absolutely. Anytime that the federal government responds to assertions made by a state government is beneficial in the grand scheme of rebalancing federalism. Even if it’s in policy ways that I don’t agree with, that’s still a good and healthy attribute. Whether that acquiescence is a product of a lackluster Biden administration early on or whether it’s some genuine belief, I can’t for sure say. I think it can only be interpreted as a good thing that there was recognition, “Okay you guys are the state government, you do have an authority, and we’re going to respect that authority.”

I can’t judge the motives, but I can certainly judge the actions. I’m very pleased with how that went down in Missouri.

You touch on the partisan nature of politics. I think federalism is one of the solutions to our partisan divide. I always say it’s easier to hate someone who’s across the country than it is to hate your neighbor. From a conservative perspective, it’s easier to hate the leftists out in California than it is to hate my friends and neighbors who identify as more left wing. Forcing conversations helps to solve that partisan divide today.

If we could only bring those important conversations into our state legislatures. I think the big disagreement and debate in Washington ought to be, “Should we fund the military at $750 billion, or should we fund it at $450 [billion] annually?” That should be the big battle lines that we see, and then reserve a lot of the other issues that have become so controversial to the state legislatures, where people must engage with their own neighbors or family members. You’ve mentioned the partisan divide in some of our conversations. I genuinely think federalism is a part of the solution.

The Missouri River and a pedestrian bridge over it, and, under it, a distant view of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. (Library of Congress)

How can state legislatures and state officials restore the proper structures of the government in our republic? What are state lawmakers doing well and maybe not doing so well right now?

Davidson: The pie-in-the-sky answer is to stop accepting federal dollars. That’s the main mechanism by which federalism is in peril today. Think of all the strings attached to all the dollars that are coming from the federal government and it is theft.

They steal money from Missourians or whomever and then they give it back to their state with all these preconditions, all these things that must be done, and they withhold [the funds] if not done a certain way. Missouri must create a financially autonomous and self-sufficient position. Where would we start? I think education is a great place to start. I don’t think there should be a Department of Education at the federal level at all. I don’t see any provisions for that in the Constitution.

I don’t see any policy reasons why it is more effective from that level. Locally made decisions are better made decisions when it comes to the education of kids. In Missouri, 9% of our education dollars on average come from the federal government. If you put that vote in front of me and said, “Bishop, do you want to take away that 9% but regain our autonomy when it comes to education matters here in our state,” I’d say, “Yes, every day of the week.”

That’s the pie-in-the-sky answer. I don’t know if there’s a political path for that, but if we could start to refuse federal dollars, that is step one. Step two is limiting how many dollars the feds receive, and that likely takes a constitutional amendment.

A short clip of our interview with Missouri Rep. Bishop Davidson.

Then, a little bit more down to earth, something we passed a couple of years ago, the first bill I ever filed, and it became law, is the Second Amendment Preservation Act (SAPA). What that does—and it’s not only a Second Amendment bill, but it’s a bill about federalism and realigning the proper structures of government as we’re talking about here—it says that any federal gun laws can’t commandeer Missouri law enforcement agencies.

If you’re a Missouri law enforcement agency, you can’t be enforcing federal gun laws. You can only enforce Missouri gun laws. It’s a familiar topic. It’s called anti-commandeering and there are plenty of examples of it. Marijuana’s a great example in which anti-commandeering is occurring. The FBI can come in and arrest anyone for marijuana, but now you’ve got over a dozen states who’ve legalized it and utilized anti-commandeering.

We utilize it for our Second Amendment as well. That’s now been thrown out in a federal district court, a western district court here in Missouri, which is okay because we needed that appeal to go further. We need that appeal to go to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court rules in the direction that I think it will, which is, “Yes, a state has autonomy over its resources,” then we have a framework for how to start to take back some of our authority across other issues, not just pertaining to the Second Amendment.

That’s why I believe SAPA is so important. It’s not just about the Second Amendment. It is about creating that roadmap for how states might begin to reclaim authority and rebalance federalism. If SAPA were to go to the Supreme Court and be upheld, that would open a path for not just Missouri but all states in how they might go about rebuilding the proper division of power in our government.

Would you see federalism as an opportunity at the state level for gun regulation, too? If California wants to do something wildly different than Mississippi, is there space for that? Most state constitutions have Second Amendment protections in them. Some say it gives more freedom to states on firearm laws.

Davidson: What I would say is there would be more freedom on issues like tax policy. Let’s not tax ourselves to death at the federal level. If Connecticut wants to tax themselves to death and they want more “services,” even though I think those services are inefficient and could probably be provided in other ways, then let them do that. We should let those voters elect people who go about doing that.

When it comes to the Second Amendment, anything in the Bill of Rights, or anything in the Constitution, I would disagree. That’s because our federalism and our fervor for federalism are integrally tied to the Constitution as well. There are things that I don’t like either about the Constitution. I hate the 16th Amendment, which allows for federal income tax. I’m not a big fan of our 17th Amendment, which popularized US Senate elections.

There’s a lot of stuff I would tweak and change, but that is the law of the land and that’s a part of federalism. Federalism doesn’t just say there’s autonomy for the states. It doesn’t just say that the states have purview over most issues. And by the way, where do we get that from? The Tenth Amendment.

Federalism understands that there’s a corollary between state and federal power. I believe federal power ought to be mustering up the military and dealing with foreign affairs. I believe it ought to manage our borders. I believe it ought to be minting currency in a limited fashion and [regulating] interstate trade and commerce. Now, I think a lot of that stuff has been abused, too.

I would say that my beliefs on federalism and beliefs on state sovereignty do not step on the toes of my beliefs on constitutionalism. I think they’re integrally tied. The Constitution is what gives us the federalist system. If I were back in 1784 or 1785, I’d likely have serious issues with the Articles of Confederation. I’d probably be on the side of, “Hey, I’m a big state sovereignty guy, but shouldn’t the federal government have some power?”

Now, we find ourselves on the opposite spectrum. We talk about that rebalancing because there’s an imbalance. We should remember, historically, there has been an imbalance before. It was only for about three years that that imbalance existed in favor of state governments having more power. Now, we’re highly imbalanced in the opposite direction. I think we can be ardent advocates of federalism while also being constitutionalists.

Does Missouri have a functional oversight committee in the legislature or a committee that is consistently performing oversight to push back against federal and administrative overreach via rulemaking, which is a big issue today?

Davidson: Yes. There is a joint committee on administrative rules. The current chair of that is a friend and is ardently a federalist himself. There is a mechanism to push back against administrative lawmaking. We also have a committee on government accountability in both the House and the Senate. Could those be utilized more? Yes, perhaps. The challenge in Missouri is that although we’re a red state now, for 100 years before that, we were a blue state.

We’ve been a red state for 20 years. These bureaucracies and bureaucratic systems, and these career bureaucrats, have been here longer than 20 years. Our bureaucracies are still very blue. Our bureaucracies are bloated. We have, I believe, more bureaucrats per resident in Missouri than in 43 other states.

The challenge is, can that joint committee, can that committee on government accountability, can they sensibly pare the bureaucracy back? It’s going to take real directed leadership in the legislature. I think it is going to take executive leadership to cut back the bureaucracies. We need to appoint the right people. I was joking with someone the other day, if I were ever governor, my first question of any cabinet member post would be, “Will you help me destroy this department?”

If the answer is yes, then you’re hired. Then, let’s move on to the next step. It’s going to be a challenge. We can always use more oversight. There are limited mechanisms of oversight now though.

I was joking with someone the other day, if I were ever governor, my first question of any cabinet member post would be, ‘Will you help me destroy this department?’

This is not just a Missouri problem, but Missouri receives about 45% of state government funding from federal dollars. What are the conversations on this at the Missouri State Capitol? Because I know there’s a lot of concern that maybe the federal government’s swallowing up state budgets, and then they’re going to have more and more say at what happens at the state level, and more and more influence as budgets get swallowed up.

There’s also this aspect of, we can hide our tax, we can push tax cuts because we’re getting all this money from the federal government and then debt just continues to increase. What are these conversations like in Missouri?

Davidson: That last point of hiding and burying tax cuts in the federal dollars, these fake federal dollars, that’s interesting. That’s a conversation that hasn’t been had as often and probably needs to be had, especially as we look at our long-term revenue generation, because taxes are important. They must occur. There are some taxes that I think are intolerable and then there are a couple of taxes which I find tolerable and necessary. But in that broader conversation, there’s been hesitation and limitations on those discussions.

We don’t have a friendly Senate Appropriations Committee when it comes to our budget and the way our rules are set up. The Senate has a lot of authority when it comes to sending the budget back to the House, where it originates, of course. I think the other element here is some of those dollars—and this isn’t a bad point—belong to Missouri taxpayers, whether it’s their taxpayers’ dollars now, or debt that’s going to be imposed on Missourians in the future.

We’re all in on broadband, and Missouri is a great example of that. We don’t have a great topography, so it’s quite costly to do broadband in the state. Would this be a good use of those dollars? Is that a prudent use, or are we feeding into the problem that we’re all talking about here?

This is where politics gets difficult, where governing gets difficult. Where prudence is a huge factor in it because you look at these dollars and ask, “Is there a way to spend them without all those strings?” I think our answer, hopefully, is yes. If the answer is yes, it’s by driving those dollars into one-time expenses. It’s by driving those dollars into specific projects that aren’t going to generate recurring programmatic costs on the Missouri taxpayer.

That seems to be an answer that pleases everyone in the caucus because it works for everyone. If you take too hard of a line on a position, that’s not politically viable either.

You’ve already discussed education, but I do want to ask you about it a little bit more because I know you’re passionate about that issue. Tennessee and Utah are having serious conversations about not accepting federal education dollars anymore and saying, “We’re just going to figure out a way to do without.” What are some of the answers to education?

School choice is a big issue in many states, and I don’t know exactly where Missouri falls on that. I haven’t seen a ton of movement, but again, I don’t know. You can address that if you want, but you don’t have to. I think a deeper question is, just rediscovering the purpose of education, what, from a policy perspective can be done, because that’s so important.

Even though school choice is great, it may not be a key fix if we’re not asking the fundamental questions: Why do we educate people? What is the purpose of education? How does it help build civil society? How does it help create good citizens? How do we look at that from a policy perspective?

Davidson: I like going to those first things, which is what you’re doing. You’re cutting through some of that policy talk and getting down to the root issue. I would say let’s start by saying education is not a human right. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s something the government should not be involved in. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in public education. It just means it’s not a human right. We’ve got to draw those rhetorical lines now because the world’s getting crazy, and truth is being attacked from all sides.

I do think it is a civic right that we’ve created, and we’ve done it since 1636 on this continent. Public education is important. It was important in the founding of our nation, and it remains important. It’s become bureaucratic; it’s become a very powerful entity. Where that power comes from, there’s a real aversion to change. That power is heavily invested in the status quo.

Southeast Missouri farms schools (Library of Congress, 1938)

It’s hard to see that change, but if you ask me how we move forward, we must remind ourselves that, yes, it’s about creating critically thinking patriotic minds. That doesn’t mean they’re not critical of our past. It doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the challenges we face. It doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the mistakes we’ve made, but it means that they’re thoughtful about those things and not dogmatic about those things.

It means that those criticisms of the past come from a position of love and affection, not a position of tearing down and hatred. Now, how do you accomplish that mechanically on a policy front? School choice versus public education? It’s all public education, by the way. If taxpayer dollars are paying for the education of children, it’s all public education. How do we restructure public education? I think you can have the best system in the world and a bad teacher, and you have a bad education. I think you can have the worst system in the world and a good teacher, and you have a good education.

I would add one more caveat to that. You can have a great teacher and a bad parent, and you can have a bad education. You can have a bad teacher and a great parent, and you can have a good education. My education policy and philosophy center on

enabling teachers and empowering parents. We’ve got to engage parents in the education process, reminding them through the nudging effects of policy that they are the primary educators and the primary responsible party when it comes to the education of their children.

Then we’ve got to make sure that we’re attracting the best and brightest among us who are genuinely passionate about education into the profession. In Missouri, and I think in states all over, many of our systems attract the middling among us into the teaching profession. I don’t think they attract the brightest minds all the time. That’s not to say that I don’t see bright minds in education teaching. My dad just won teacher of the year in the largest school district in Missouri. He’s a public school teacher. He’s fantastic. I know he’s made meaningful differences in students’ lives.

What I want to ensure though is that our systems are encouraging that kind of behavior and that our systems are empowering teachers to pursue their passion in the classroom when it comes to curriculum and student learning. Right now, we have too much of a top-down approach. School choice is beneficial, which is something I’m very interested in, empowering parents, where dollars follow the student. I love that agenda, but whether we pursue that agenda or another agenda when it comes to our education policy, we must remember the cornerstone of our classroom is the teacher.

But good teacher-parent relationships are foundational. If you’ve got a strong parent-teacher relationship, and a teacher who’s genuinely passionate and feels enabled and empowered by their district and their state, you’re going to have a great education system that produces critical thinking and patriotic minds.

I’ve got one final question for you, and you can be as broad and narrow as you want. I know this will make sense to you.

One reason federalism is in peril today is because of a floundering civil society and eroding family structures. We talked a little bit about that. Not everybody today in the public square is making those connections. They just want to focus on policy or winning arguments. They want to focus on whatever their agenda is, or they want to focus on some of the evil things that we see out there that are just waved around in the public square.

What role can a state legislature play in strengthening these institutions that are so essential to a free society? How do we do that? How do we educate and become civic educators, stressing the importance of civil society? How do we go out there as citizens and reclaim the mantle of our inheritance?

Davidson: A lot of that comes back to education, making sure it’s not indoctrination camps that are just destroying the family. Marxism literally says one of the tenets is you must destroy religion; you must destroy the family. Eventually, you destroy the nation and enjoy the commune; that is the goal.

I think that’s reflected in some of the more Marxist parts of the left. I think it’s reflected in agendas related to education. It’s reflected in bureaucratic agendas. I think it’s reflected in state agendas. When it comes to what I can do, I can use my platform to say, “Hey, the biggest secular problem that we have in this nation is probably a lack of fathers. It’s a lack of good men, broadly speaking. It’s a lack of fathers in homes, specifically.”

I think if you had fathers present in homes, and I don’t mean just present physically, but present emotionally, and present spiritually and intellectually, so many of our problems would be gone. They’d go away overnight. Not because they’re intellectuals and academics and talking like we’re talking here. Not because they’re teaching their kids about federalism, but because they’re creating safe, secure environments for their children to explore the world. Fathers cultivate space for kids to take risks and explore lots of different ideas.

As far as what the state can do, it’s ironic. I think self-government, and maybe family government, and state power are inversely proportional. As state power grows, that authority is undermined, and its purpose is undermined. When we undermine the responsibility and purpose of institutions like the family using state power, even if it’s well-intentioned, those institutions fall apart. They fray at the edges. I think that’s what we’re seeing now.

We don’t see ourselves as connected groups within the family unit, with responsibilities, and the duties and obligations that come with that.

It used to be that I was responsible for mom and dad. It’s my task to figure out how to care for them as they grow older and into their elder age. You better believe I’m going to take on that responsibility along with my siblings, but whether we collectively see that as our responsibility, I’d say the answer is absolutely no. We see that as the state’s responsibility. That’s because we’re hyper-individualistic. We don’t see ourselves as connected groups within the family unit, with responsibilities, and the duties and obligations that come with that.

The state solution is ironic. It’s getting out of those nanny state issues and empowering parents. Education is a key way to reveal that role. You’re asking the million-dollar question, and I’m not sure there’s a clear-cut answer because I don’t think it’s state action that fixes this problem. I think it’s state inaction. It’s the state getting out of the business of running a family, getting out of the business of stealing responsibilities that have historically existed in the family, or in the church, or the social group, or in the community, or neighborhood, and allowing for that vacuum of responsibility to exist.

It might hurt a little, but it will put that weight of responsibility back on the shoulders of family units and these other institutions that we’re talking about. It’s that weight of responsibility that I think makes a man feel most manly. I think millions of men long for that weight of responsibility and would happily rise to the occasion if only the weight was put on them.

Authored by:Bishop Davidson


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