COEUR d'ALENE - State rights were a common theme among many of the break-out session at the Republican Liberty Caucus of Idaho's Liberty Expo on Saturday - specifically the need to exercise nullification.
About 100 people turned out for the event that was held all day at the Best Western Plus Coeur d'Alene Inn. They listened to dozens of 10th amendment experts and legislators discuss issues ranging from the media's coverage of federal issues to gun rights. There were sessions on how to effectively lobby the legislature and motivate grassroots activism.
But in nearly every discussion the issue of nullification of federal laws came to the forefront and many expressed how frustrated they are that Idaho won't even go there.
Many lawmakers say that the word itself is a political lightning rod making it difficult for them to even bring up.
"It really, in my mind, is a polarizing term, but as I look around here, we are preaching to the choir," said Idaho State Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. "We know here that it is not an offensive term."
Barbieri unsuccessfully led an effort in the last legislative session to nullify components of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
"Using the term nullification was a mistake. In the second version we pulled that term out," he said, adding they kept the term out of the third version of legislation that wound up getting watered down before it passed.
"Vito is right, so let me give you the message words," said Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R- Spokane Valley. "We used the words 'opt out.' We are going to opt Washington state out of Obamacare."
He said conservative legislators in Olympia learned that using terms like 'opt out' made it more palatable to their opponents and the public at large because they can understand that, and are more likely to support it.
Conor Boyak, President of the Libertas Institute of Utah, agreed with Shea and Barbieri, and pointed to an issue where nullification has recently worked without using the term at all.
He said 21 states have passed laws legalizing marijuana in one form or another, and recently U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the federal government would not enforce federal drug laws in those states to stop it.
According to Boyak, Holder said the primary reason they won't enforce it is because they simply don't have the resources to do it.
"That is what nullification is. It's a game of chicken, and this issue illustrates how nullification can work," he said. "The term nullification is branded as a right wing thing, and that is how our opponents use it. To the extent that it is pigeon-holed into any specific political paradigm, then its easily written off by the opponents."
Barbieri said the public has grown complacent when it comes to the federal government reaching beyond its constitutionally granted powers.
"The mindset is that if the government has made a determination, it is the law of the land and that's just the way it is," he said. "If congress passes it, then it is the law of the land."
Most all of the panelists agreed that some form of resistance from the states is needed to get the government back in check.
"We need to find issues of common ground that make sense for people to nullify - take marijuana," Boyak said. "People who may disagree with it on moral religious grounds, or whatever, can come around to the fact that we should not be criminalizing it.
"People who oppose nullification tend to like nullification of their pet issues, but they don't like calling it nullification."
Michael Boldin, founder of the 10th Amendment Center, gave the keynote talk during the lunch session. He read from James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 46, which talked about how the states have the power to resist the federal government's laws whether they are constitutional or not.
"There are powerful means that you can employ to resist them and make it almost so they can't pull off anything that they want to do," he said, as he translated the papers to the crowd. "Just because they pass a law saying you have to have insurance doesn't mean states have to comply with it."
Madison, he said, had four remedies to federal overreach. The first is protest, then refusal to cooperate with officers of the union, appeal to the state governor, and special legislative devices.
Boldin believes Madison was referring to legislative nullification, because he used that "legislative device" later in his political career.
In order for it to work, however, many at the Expo said the county sheriff would have to be on board at the local level and willing to resist federal officers if the state opted to nullify a federal law.
"If we don't comply with their laws, they are in a pickle," Shea said. "And we have to back the sheriff up."
He said any federal raid would have to rely on the local police force to do much of the work because without the local police force, the federal government doesn't have the resources to enforce its law.
The problem is that most county sheriffs have grown accustomed to using federal grant money to operate their departments, but there is a growing movement among the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association to resist federal overreach.
The CSPOA was founded by Richard Mack, who joined with six other sheriffs from across the country to sue the federal government after the Brady Bill was passed in 1993. They won.
Still, many of the panelists and speakers cautioned against putting too much faith in the federal courts, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare goes to show that it isn't interested in limiting the federal government's power.
"If we are talking about a state remedy against an intrusive federal government, we have already seen that we have a problem with our federal court system limiting the power of the federal government," Barbieri said. "Taxing for non-behavior is unprecedented.
"We must begin to opt out, push back and start simply saying no."
Shea agreed, saying lawmakers need to have the courage to look beyond the terminology and start resisting some of the federal laws that go too far.
" Nullification - opting out - is just a natural right of self defense, but at the state level. It is that simple." he said. "For too long people have said: 'No. You can't do that.' 'No. It's ineffective.' 'No. It's impossible.' But that's just because we are not trying.
"If we sit there in defeat because we have already defeated ourselves, what are our kids and grandkids going to say about us?"