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What Military Uniforms’ ‘Flag First’ Can Teach Us About Good Government


Army Drill Sergeant Henry was born to be a drill sergeant. He looked like a drill sergeant. His chiseled features were striking, and only his bulging eyes stuck out further than his bulging biceps. Everything about this man was flawless, topped with his meticulously worn drill sergeant cap.

During basic training, Drill Sergeant Henry asked us if we knew why the American flag is “backwards” on U.S. military uniforms. We all stood there clueless—a common pose for recruits in basic training—and Drill Sergeant Henry reminded us that we didn’t know anything until he taught us so, of course, we didn’t know the answer.

At 6’7” and the only soldier in basic training heading off to Officer Candidate School, I received more than my share of the drill sergeant’s attention. Drill Sergeant Henry eyeballed me, “Come on college boy, didn’t they teach you anything about the American flag in all your education?” I responded, “No, drill sergeant, I was not taught why the flag flies backward on the U.S. Army uniform.”

Drill Sergeant Henry then informed us that when you head into battle, some mother’s son would run ahead of another mother’s son, and that fortunate soldier would run as fast as he could with the U.S. flag. “And did that flag fly with the stars in the back? Hell, no! Because when a flag is on the move, the stars are leading the way. Yes, the stars lead us into battle and they are always moving forward.”

The American flag has 50 divinely beautiful stars in the canton with each one representing our 50 states. So, even in battle, as a unified national fighting force, the states lead the way. This, of course, is wholly appropriate, for the states created the federal government and our Constitution, not the other way around.

Government Is For Us, Not Us For Government

The symbolism of our flag is a reflection of our framers’ reality: We are a republic, not a Washington DC-based, centralized power that dictates to the states what they can and cannot do. There are limits to federal power. The Constitution details what the federal government (and states) cannot do to citizens. The Tenth Amendment is clear that the federal government’s power is limited, and all other power is reserved to the states or states’ citizens.

The first three words of the Constitution—“We the People”—declare that the document was written for citizens, not the government. The role of the federal government is to ensure that our individual freedoms are protected. Examples of this protection are the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, and protections of civil rights.

The federal government has effectively neutered the Tenth Amendment by collecting tax revenue from the states and then returning the same dollars with thousands of conditions that effectively federalize state and local government operations. It does something similar on the regulatory front when it approves or disapproves state implementation plans for federal programs, forcing states into the role of field agencies of the federal government.

States Do Most Government Jobs Better

I am a citizen-soldier. I’m a member of the Army Reserves, an accountant, and a Wisconsin state representative. In Wisconsin, we’ve passed historic labor reforms, cut taxes, expanded school choice, and continue to work to right-size and properly focus government. Throughout our history, the states have led the way.

States are able to quickly adapt based on the experiments other states conduct. Geography, demographics, natural resources, and other factors position local and state elected officials better than federal elected officials to develop public policy.

Unfortunately, federal elected officials and, even worse, unelected federal bureaucrats heap scores of regulations on states, businesses, and individuals. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, since 1976 federal agencies have issued more than 180,000 new regulations, making it nearly impossible to even define the breadth and scope of the federal government’s reach into our personal and professional lives.

Federal Regs Keep Me From Representing My Constituents

Let me explain my concerns about federal overreach in legislating at the state level. I ran for office to solve problems, but over my six years in office I’ve been continually reminded that states lack many of the tools necessary to create innovative solutions in response to significant problems.

Medicaid is a perfect example. In 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that affirmed limits on federal power to coerce states into action. Their ruling quashed the federal Medicaid blackmail scheme, which would have forced states to accept expansion of the program or risk losing existing funds.

That was a significant ruling, but problems persist. Medicaid is a federally mandated but state-run program in which the federal government matches a share of expenditures in return for the ability to dictate state program parameters. The federal government retains the ability to decide the model of care for each state, as opposed to allowing states to create a system that matches their local needs.

Because of the perverse financial relationship between states and the federal government, states have very limited flexibility to experiment with innovative health-care delivery models, which could raise the standard of care and save scarce taxpayer resources. Some have gone so far as to describe the relationship as coercive, whereby the federal government uses the threat of withholding federal funds to coerce states into its plan.

Even worse, some have described the federal government’s conduct as commandeering, such as when it dictates specific commands to state agencies, essentially commandeering a state agency for federal purposes.

Recently, I participated in a conference call with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal authority that approves all Medicaid deviations. A CMS official dashed my hopes by saying individual state legislators do not have the power to seek exceptions to Medicaid laws or rules, and that only a state executive branch can request waivers.

This leaves the fastest-growing portion of all 50 states’ budgets outside the purview of the legislative bodies that most closely and directly represent the people. The frustration is compounded when the growth of Medicaid expenditures cannibalize nearly all of the growth in state revenue, diverting state lawmakers’ power to reduce tax burdens or increase resources for priorities such as education.

Stop Blackmailing Us

The federal government collects billions of dollars from taxpayers in every state, yet in order for those same state taxpayers to become or remain eligible to receive their own money back, state governments must agree to and comply with Washington’s terms and conditions. These are often arbitrary, ridiculous, and completely unrelated to the underlying rules and regulations.

When one of my soldiers returns home from a deployment, I maintain the tradition of taking that soldier out for a beer. However, occasionally that soldier is less than 21 years old, so not able to legally have a beer in the United States. I’d guess most Americans would agree a soldier who has been entrusted by his country with weapons of war to protect our nation’s security deserves to legally have a beer when he or she returns home to American soil (especially if that soldier is from a proud beer-producing state like Wisconsin).

Washington’s ‘solutions’ usually come with strings attached that only create more problems.

If Wisconsin’s representatives agreed with me and decided to pass a law to allow our combat veterans younger than 21 the freedom to enjoy a beer, our state would face significant financial retribution from the federal government. In fact, if Wisconsin lowers the drinking age, the state could annually lose at least $53 million in federal highway funds for each year the state is out of compliance. That’s blackmail, and it’s wrong.

States residents and therefore governments in states like California and Wisconsin have dramatically different ideas on government’s role in health care. Americans across all political affiliation should unite and encourage our elected officials in Washington DC to divest power to states and individuals.

Fortunately, leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan have advocated for this approach, and 2017 may be the year we see a return to the principles of federalism. Many, if not most, Americans are skeptical of Washington. We, as states, should not be looking to or relying upon the federal government for solutions, because Washington’s “solutions” usually come with strings attached that only create more problems.

We are at a crossroads and a time for choosing. It’s time to return power to the states. Let’s let our states, the real stars, lead us into the battle for a better America. If not now, when?