Bashing the federal government is an old political game in Idaho, and I would certainly admit that it can be effective in securing a headline. On the other hand, it is rarely successful as a tactic to change policy unless it is backed up with a real strategy to influence the way Washington, D.C. relates to Idaho and the West.

The current debate in the Idaho Legislature over “nullification” of the federal health care legislation is a good case in point. Beyond being unconstitutional, silly and a pure waste of time, the action will have no practical effect once the blistering sound bites and the bold headlines fade away. No practical effect, that is, unless you like Idaho being unfavorably compared to Southern states prior to the Civil War that flaunted the U.S. Constitution and the fundamental idea of a “united” states.

I admit to my share of jousting with the feds over the years, but I think there can a right way and an ineffective way to approach the frequently contentious federal-state relationship. Common sense is much better than nullification.

Back in the late 1980s in my second go-round as governor, I became concerned again about nuclear waste storage and disposal practices at the Idaho National Laboratory. As those who have been following the recent INL waste story know, I am still concerned about those issues. The story of our efforts to prevent waste shipments to INL, including closing the state’s borders, is well known, as is the resulting agreement with the Department of Energy that limited storage and established a time certain when such material must be out of Idaho. What is less well known is the hard work that took place, mostly behind the scenes, to get the federal government to be fair with Idaho.

For example, during my time jousting with DOE, it became clear that there was no overall strategy at INL to clean up the nuclear waste legacy of the past. Surprisingly the federal government wasn’t even being held to the same environmental laws and regulations that private companies comply with every day.

To address that problem, Idaho worked with the National Governors Association and I co-chaired, with then-Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey, a national effort to force federal facilities — DOE facilities, military installations, etc. — to be held to the same environmental standards we hold Idaho companies. Then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell championed the legislation in Congress and in 1992 The Federal Facilities Compliance Act was signed into law.

As a result of the FFCA, as the Department of Energy notes on its website, “many DOE facilities are now subject to federal facility compliance agreements and other binding administrative clean-up orders.” The real cleanup at INL was jump-started by that law, made possible by hard work and common sense.

It can be tempting to play the emotional state’s rights card in dealing with the federal government. It’s true that every administration, Republican and Democratic, overreaches. But the reality is that the broad public interest almost always requires the hard work and quiet persuasion that brings about political and policy compromise and, yes, such an approach requires a big dose of common sense.

The federal government that some Idahoans hate today because of health care is the same federal government that supplies the jobs and research dollars at the INL, maintains Mountain Home Air Force Base, protects Craters of the Moon, supplied the highway trust funds to build the Perrine Bridge and created the vast irrigation system that supports Idaho agriculture.

Whenever I hear another politician bashing the feds, I’m reminded of what a great westerner and a great writer, Wallace Stegner, once said. “When the West fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.“

Cecil Andrus, a Boise Democrat, was governor of Idaho from 1971-76 and again from 1987-95 and served as secretary of the interior from 1977-81. He is chairman of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University.

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