The need for statesmen in our legislatures

Authored by Jim Kallinger

Jim Kallinger is president of the National Association of Former State Legislators. Kallinger is a former Florida state legislator, successful entrepreneur, and patent holder with extensive experience in the private and public sectors. He recently spoke with American Habits senior editor Ray Nothstine.

Tell me about your organization and the communication with state legislatures that you are having that promotes reform. What is your organization trying to accomplish?

Jim Kallinger: First of all, we are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and the only network of former state legislators in the country. Our mission is tied to the fact that we are experienced former state legislators who have been there and done that. As an organization, we have strong connections and relationships with current state legislators across the country. Many of our friends are still serving and we have the institutional knowledge to effectively engage them. Our mission is to educate, engage, and empower current elected state legislators on balanced federalism and principled governance.

Jim Kallinger

Our Constitution establishes a federal government which basically is a consensual agreement between the national government and the state governments regarding the jurisdiction and authority of each. The Founders were very clear. The powers enumerated to the national government are very few per Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Beyond that, all other power and authority is left to the states per the 10th Amendment.

We want our elected state legislators to know why it is important to intentionally preserve the sovereignty of their state, and the federalism that is defined in our Constitution.  

I can tell you from experience that many, probably the majority, who get elected to the state legislatures around the country are not looking at principled governance. They are very focused on their policy issues, which is important, but they need to pay close attention to the process and separation of power. We tell them, “Don’t take your eye off the ball, because if you do, you’re going to lose the game.”

The terms democracy and federalism are linked in America. Yet, a winner-takes-all pure democracy permeates a large segment of the public mind. We see efforts to cancel the Electoral College, to go to a popular vote model. There are other efforts to push us toward a pure democracy. People see that as fair, and many partisans view it as their best way to coalesce more power. Is this dangerous, and why? What do we need to know about these two words?

Kallinger: We’re not a democracy. We do very little policy or law-making by referendum. The Founders abhorred democracy. They knew it was a “short-lived and violent” way to govern. They were very careful to make sure that we did not have a democracy but a republican form of government. Our Constitution clearly establishes a representative republic. Madison was very eloquent in Federalist 10 in explaining these reasons. Representative government is the best remedy to mitigate what he called the “violence of factions,” or the unchecked influence of special interest groups.

Well, unfortunately, the states have been losing the game to the national government for quite a while. We just need to get them re-engaged and refocused, [get them to] stand up for the sovereignty of their state and be conscious of the proper structures of government.

What the Founders gave us is a balanced federal system that establishes the sovereignty of states on almost all policy issues. There is no established authority on nearly all the issues that the national government is attempting to legislate. That authority has been reserved to the states. The Founders instinctively knew that it is easier to hold our state representatives accountable for good policy decisions because they are closer to us. It’s an important component of the proper checks and balances while simultaneously preserving the voice of the people.

You’ve served as a state legislator. What did you learn about the dangers of dependency on the federal government? What are some things you knew then but maybe became more actualized after serving? I’m worried we have these satellite states that just grab federal dollars and have little say in the ultimate direction of their state.

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart. (1804)

Kallinger: Right now, national government appropriations make up about 35%, on average, of every state’s budget. No doubt, the states are very dependent on national government largess and the dictates that come along with it.

Let’s not forget that this money comes from the states and the people, and when it goes back to the states and the people there are multiple strings attached. This is where the national government has expanded its tentacles into policies that really ought to be left to the states. We are succumbing ourselves to policies that are being dictated from on high. The states are more diverse than ever, and there is no way that Washington DC can effectively and efficiently dictate one-size-fits-all policies to all 50 states.

State governments must begin tightening their belts and devising strategies and tactics to wean themselves off the money coming out of Washington and thereby divorce themselves from national government dictates.

I think we are starting to see some movement in that direction. With all the animosity and partisanship going on in our country today, we are realizing that the states reclaiming their sovereignty might be the solution. Defending the sovereignty of your state defends the sovereignty of all states and strengthens our union. It creates a “release valve” for the people where we can choose to live in the state that best matches our politics and preferred policies.

Are there specific instances where you had to deal with administrative state overreach as a legislator, whether at the federal or state level?  

Kallinger: I served in the governor’s office here in Florida as Chief Child Advocate, dealing with children’s issues and child welfare. We worked hard to get our kids safely adopted out of the foster care system. We were national leaders in this area and for our adoption efforts received recognition and a $7 million “bonus” from the national government.

We had to designate a state agency to receive the appropriation and, in this case, naturally chose the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). In my role, I was the governor’s liaison to eight different state agencies, including DCF. We wanted to make sure that $7 million was invested in adoption programs. I was very fortunate that my deputy had a PhD in statistics and really knew numbers and budgets.  

We put a request into DCF for an accounting of the adoption bonus money. When we received the report, I gave it to my deputy for her analysis. She read through it and said it was not complete nor accurate. I gave it back to DCF and said we needed the facts. We knew they were playing an accounting game with us. They sent over a second report and again it did not accurately lay out all the numbers.

Finally, we told the agency secretary that we know the game and wanted the real numbers. We received the third report and finally got all the facts out of them. These executive agencies were under our oversight, and you would think that they would be somewhat straightforward and transparent with us, but bureaucracies tend to be self-serving.

You can only imagine the difficulty a legislative appropriations committee, consisting of part-time state legislators, has over-seeing and holding accountable an established and bureaucratic executive agency that has an annual budget that is over $40 billion.

Administrative agencies are entrenched with bureaucrats and I would say most of what they do, including rule making, is purposely opaque and does not have the approval of the representatives of the people.

What is dangerous to our freedom is when you have an executive who makes use of their administrative bureaucracy to achieve their objectives without going through the proper channels and engaging the legislative branch. We are seeing a lot of this today, especially at the national level. It does not matter who is in power because when this occurs the people are cut out of the process. Unfortunately, we are losing our voice, and many just do not understand how powerful the administrative state is and how they are doing things without our approval.

If there’s a new state legislator elected, how can they exert their authority more? They may not be thinking about these issues. How do they exert their authority a little bit more in the legislative process? What advice would you give them as they come into office?

Kallinger: Our state legislators are teachers, builders, bankers, farmers, etc. There is no requirement that they have any kind of background or knowledge in constitutional law or principled governance. I have seen many candidates for public office who speak like statesmen on the campaign trail but, when they get elected, quickly become your typical politician. We need more statesmen.

To be a statesman, you need to develop a deep understanding of policy issues, but you must first be grounded in the facts of principled governance. When state legislatures are mostly comprised of statemen, the legislation they support and the appropriations they approve will promote balanced federalism, protect state sovereignty, and keep the national government in check.  

Over the last 100 years, much has happened through US Supreme Court decisions, amendments to the US Constitution, and general apathy towards federalism that has put the states at a clear disadvantage with the national government. The Founders did give us checks and balances; one of them is Article V of the US Constitution. Congress can propose amendments to put the states in check—and it has—but the states can also propose amendments to put Congress in check, which they have not done.

To be a statesman, you need to develop a deep understanding of policy issues, but you must first be grounded in the facts of principled governance.

In this process, two-thirds of the states can call a convention to propose an amendment to the Constitution. It is not a constitutional convention but a convention of states to propose an amendment to put a check or a balance on the national government like term limits or a balanced budget requirement.

Not long ago, two-thirds of the states did call for a convention to discuss developing an amendment that would put some fiscal restraints on the national government. At that point in time, Congress should have complied and taken action to convene a convention of states which they failed to do. No surprise here. There have been discussions on ways to force Congress to comply with their constitutional duty.

Either way, whether it is Congress proposing an amendment or two-thirds of the states proposing an amendment, it still takes three-fourths of the states to ratify that amendment. It is a very high threshold, but a tool the Founder’s gave the states to throttle the anticipated dangers of an overactive national government.

I was a kid in the ’80s. I remember Gramm-Rudman, I remember PAYGO, all these initiatives to restore our fiscal discipline. We have spiraled so much more out of control since then. I recall the constant debates about the federal budget and the dangers of sky-high deficits and debt.

Are we seeing legislators ask more questions about the $35 trillion debt that we have in this country and wondering, should we tie our state perpetually to this anchor? Is it too late to unwind some of this dependency? It’s scary. I look at that debt clock, not just for myself but for my kids, and wonder what kind of nation we’re creating for them.

Kallinger: Frankly, I don’t think the average person really understands the gravity of this situation. The numbers are way too big to fully comprehend and they just do not see it affecting their daily lives and routines. But now, many people are seeing and feeling the pressures of rampant inflation and their checkbooks are getting pinched.

State legislators need to raise the questions and have more conversations about this problem with their constituents. That is how process works. Movement on any issue does not happen unless you have a constituency pushing it. When you have a constituency expressing concern over a national debt that is out of control, and asking what we can do about it at the state level, then state legislators will sit down around a table and discuss the gravity of the situation and how they can mitigate the effects of it.

In states like Florida, a balanced budget is mandatory. The national government doesn’t have to balance their checkbook like a lot of the states do, and we are paying dearly for that. The states need to stand up together and put a balanced budget mandate on the national government. Unfortunately, Washington is incapable of doing this on their own.

Most everyone in Congress is focused on getting reelected and no one wants to lose voters so, of course, they continually support all the spending and handouts. A substantial chunk of the electorate has realized that they can easily and effectively vote for government largesse.

April 15, 2010: Sacramento, California Tea Party DemonstrationThis photo from well back in the crowd shows citizens unhappy with government spending are demonstrating on tax day.

We’ll close on a positive note because it’s easy to get depressed about Washington. When I walk around my neighborhood, I find a lot of kind people who I would trust much more to lead me than the folks in DC. Jefferson said that the ultimate guardians of liberty are the people. It’s on us. How can we recover more of a culture of self-government? I think that is the ultimate question: We must be a self-governing people and not allow ourselves to be sucked into the constant mayhem that centralization creates.

Kallinger: I’m sure many have heard of the story about Ben Franklin leaving the Convention after they had just signed off on the new Constitution. A Mrs. Powell walked up to him and asked, “Mr. Franklin, have you given us another monarchy?” He replied, “No, ma’am, we’ve given you a Republic if you can keep it.” That is what Jefferson is implying. It is up to us, the people, to keep our republic and our liberty. We all our busy with our jobs and raising our families, but we need to be engaged in the process. It is driven by the people, unless we hand it over to the government and bureaucracy.

Government closest to the people is superior. Your state legislator has an office that is likely close so take the time to meet and develop a relationship with them. They are your representative and will make decisions on your behalf on issues that will potentially have an impact on you and your family. You can become an important voice on their radar.

Ray, it all goes back to self-governance. We complain about the government, but what about our own homes? Are we living within our means? Do we have a simple lifestyle? How are we raising our children? I believe everything starts in the home and emanates from there, the good and the bad. I would challenge everyone to do a self-analysis on how you and your family are living out your life. Raise your children to understand the history of this country, what self-governance is all about, and how we should practice that. The American Founders believed that our system can’t exist without without an engaged and educated people with a virtuous and moral foundation. It is either self-governance and self-determination, or government control. That is the price of freedom.

So much of it starts in the home and then our state legislators can take it from there.

Authored by:Jim Kallinger


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