Gov. Mike Leavitt may have been preaching to the choir, but he still got two standing ovations Monday when he told a gathering of Western legislators that the federal-state "partnership" was out of whack and a constitutional amendment was needed to right it.
Leavitt said four different proposals will be presented in two weeks in Cincinnati at his "conference of the states." He personally likes the idea of a constitutional amendment that would give states a modified veto power over federal legislation.How to get that amendment through Congress is another matter. And Leavitt exhorted those attending the Western States Con-ference of the Council of State Governments - a group that Leav-itt will become president of next year - to "reclaim your stewardship to fight for the rights of the people."
Actually, Leavitt isn't calling the Cincinnati meeting the "conference of the states" any more. He and co-founder of the movement, Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, envisioned 25 or more state legislatures officially sending a dele-gation to a meeting on curbing federal power. But Leavitt and Nelson were blindsided by archconservative groups and others who feared the convention could turn into a constitutional convention and the nation's most basic document could be changed in undesirable ways.
"We couldn't even agree to have a meeting to see if there was something we could agree about," Leavitt said to the laughs of some in the crowd. Such opposition, irrational or not, led Leavitt to decide that the U.S. Constitution couldn't be changed by a constitutional convention. Such a convention "is one of the tools of balance for the states that no longer works. The political climate is such that a constitutional convention could not, and should not, ever be called."
Leavitt said the modified states' veto would work like this: If two-thirds of state legislatures decided that a federal law or regulationwas bad, then Congress would be forced to vote on that law again. The states couldn't abolish a federal law, just require a revoting of it.
In practice, the two-thirds veto by the states would rarely if ever be used, Leavitt believes. "If you saw 15 or 20 or 25 states moving to use the power, as the (member of Congress) who sponsored the law, what would you do? Well, you'd fix it, wouldn't you? And that is what would happen." Practical politics would win out.
"The question I ask is: If two-thirds of the states thought a law was bad, maybe it is?"
Bad laws now don't see the "light of day" because they're packed into huge bills containing many unrelated issues, said Leavitt. But under the two-thirds veto amendment, Congress would have to vote on the bad law all by itself. And in that context, most "bad laws" would fail or be changed to work better.
Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, told the group that the two-thirds veto of federal laws isn't a new idea. Back in 1798 it was called the Doctrine of Nullification. It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision to say that states couldn't just decide not to follow a federal law - that federal law is supreme to state actions. That's why Leavitt and his states' rights movement needs an amendment, not just a law, to give teeth to the two-thirds rejection.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said the federal government should really be about only several things - fighting wars, directing foreign policy, maritime regulations and interstate commerce. However, Hansen said some federal programs, while they may be block-granted to the states, will never go away. He included Medicare and Medicaid as programs that will not be ended.
Tuesday, legislators from 13 western states approved a number of resolutions, including one that supports Hansen's efforts to return most or all of the control of federal lands in the West to the states, which, Hansen says, could manage them cheaper and better than the federal government does.