Tag: federalism

Tuesday Links

  • “Vouchers and tax credits differ from one another in important ways, and Pennsylvanians deserve to have their representatives consider them one at a time.”
  • “So, if the Supreme Court’s precedents defer to Congress’ assessments of its powers, but Congress is relying for ‘constitutional authority’ on the Supreme Court’s precedents, then NO ONE is actually looking at the Constitution itself to see if a bill is within Congress’ enumerated powers.”
  • “Carbon dioxide, thought to be a significant cause of the warming of surface temperature since the mid-1970s, is currently the respiration of the world’s economic civilization. Getting rid of it isn’t as simple as banning CFCs and switching to another refrigerant.”
  • “As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been ‘as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.’”
  • It’s the expenditures, stupid:

Righting the Balance

In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment cut an important tie in the Constitution between state legislatures and the Congress. In the original Constitution, states were empowered to choose the senators who would represent them in Congress. The result? Senators had an allegiance to the state government as much as the people of the state they represented.

Why does this matter? Well, today—with direct, popular election of senators—there isn’t much of anyone looking after state legislatures in Congress. Accordingly, the federal government continually tries to turn states into administrative outposts of the federal government rather than respecting them as the independent political powers they’re supposed to be.

In program after program, remote federal officials set policy and raise taxes, then require states to administer the programs. When things go a-mess, people don’t know whether it’s the federal government or the state government they need to talk to. Political accountability suffers, contributing to the big morass of government in the United States today.

Now, it wasn’t all sweetness and light before the Seventeenth Amendment rejiggered our governmental system, but it isn’t sweetness and light now either.

So yesterday, constitutional amendments were introduced in both the House and Senate to right the balance. House Joint Resolution 62 and Senate Joint Resolution 12 would propose an amendment to the Constitution giving states the right to repeal federal laws and regulations. Under the amendments, when two-thirds of the states ratify repeal of a federal mandate, it would come off the books.

The idea is to again right the balance between the states and the federal government. Most of its effect would be upstream: the Congress would be a lot more circumspect, knowing that the states could reject its laws if they went too far. But occasionally states would get a head of steam and lop out a federal law that they find disagreeable. The federal legislature would have to be a little more humble.

The federal government and its officials are pretty remote from the people compared to state legislators. Some way to right the balance would be good, whether it’s this specific idea, repeal of the Seventeeth Amendment, or some other. The “Madison Amendment” would work toward the same end by empowering states to propose constitutional amendments the way the Congress now does.

In this modern era of national transportation, high-speed communications, and global markets, many people believe that it’s natural for regulation to gravitate to the national level (often not considering that the logical end is global regulation). But technological change has not altered the rule that government closer to the people—or self-rule by the people themselves—is best. We pay a high price every day in this country for having cut a tendon in the constitutional structure with the Seventeenth Amendment and direct election of senators. It’s good to see efforts out there to right this balance.

Arizona Immigration Decision Underlines Need for Fundamental Reform

The legal battle over SB 1070 is far from over, so neither side should cheer or despair. The upshot of the Ninth Circuit’s splintered and highly technical opinion is merely that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining four provisions. The court could not and did not rule on the legislation’s ultimate constitutionality and, of course, SB 1070’s remaining provisions—the ten that weren’t challenged and the two on which Judge Bolton rejected the government’s argument—remain in effect.

But the legal machinations are only half the story. While I personally think that all or almost all of the Arizona law is constitutional, at least as written (abuses in application are always possible), it’s bad policy because it harms the state’s economy and misallocates law enforcement resources. But I also understand the frustration of many state governments, whose citizens are demanding relief from a broken immigration system that Congress has repeatedly failed to fix. Whether it’s stronger enforcement (Arizona) or liberalizing work permits (Utah), states should not be forced into the position of having to enact their own piecemeal immigration solutions while living within a system where the regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility. Congress has dropped the ball in not passing comprehensive immigration reform, despite facing a system that doesn’t work for anyone: not big business or small business, not rich Americans or poor ones, not skilled would-be immigrants or unskilled.

The federalism our Constitution establishes sometimes demands that the federal government act on certain issues. This is such a time and immigration is such an issue.

Celebrating James Madison

Two hundred and sixty years ago, James Madison was born in Virginia. His life was long and eventful, comprising the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the founding of political parties, the War of 1812, and the rise of Andrew Jackson. The struggles that would culminate in the Civil War were evident in the last years of his life.

Along with his political career, Madison proved to be one of this nation’s most insightful and certainly its most influential political theorist. He is often accorded the twin titles of Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No doubt those titles claim too much for him or any other mortal. But according him those titles is not far from the truth.

What would surprise Madison about our current constitutional and political arrangements?

He would be surprised and, I think, displeased by the size and scope of the federal government. Madison was a limited government man. He thought the general welfare clause in Article I of the Constitution was simply a shorthand way of mentioning other enumerated powers, not a general grant of power for Congress to pursue whatever it might think served the general welfare. As he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.” Of course, for some decades now, the courts have permitted Congress broad powers under the general welfare clause.

He would also be taken aback by the all but plenary power accorded to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article I. How could (can) a limited government be reconciled to such plenary power? Moreover, as he said in Congress, “if industry and labour are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”

I think Madison would also be surprised by how far the executive has taken on the prerogatives of an English king, in fact if not in law. Like many republicans of the founding era, he worried that the legislature would dominate the executive. We live in a time where Congress happily delegates its power to the executive branch and awaits the executive’s budget agenda. At the same time, Madison worried that executives, presidents and kings, had every reason to declare and make war, the latter being the most dreaded of “all enemies to public liberty.”  As he wrote in 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

In this light, it is perhaps inevitable that the authors of The Executive Unbound dismiss Madison in favor of Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political and from 1933 onward, Preußischer Staatsrat and President of the Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen.

For Madison, the whole point was to bind government through a Constitution, enumerated powers, and ambition pitted against ambition. His was a noble vision of politics in service to individual liberty. Let us hope that we are not living “after the Madisonian Republic.”

GAO Report on Duplicative Programs

A Government Accountability Office report on duplicative federal programs is prima facie evidence that the government is a bloated mess. For example, there are 82 federal programs involved in teacher quality, 80 programs involved in economic development, and over 100 programs involved in surface transportation.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) summed it up best in his press release on the GAO report:

This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

Nobody knows because no human being could possibly keep sufficient tabs on thousands of programs in a $3.8 trillion federal budget. Compounding the problem is the fact that policymakers devote much of their time to fundraising, campaigning, and other distracting activities.

The report’s takeaway, therefore, should be that the federal government’s scope needs to be drastically curtailed. Unfortunately, a typical response to the report has been to cite it as further evidence that policymakers must “eliminate waste” and “make government more efficient.” Coburn says “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services. And, in many cases, smart consolidations will improve service.”

No, no, no.

Most of the “services” discussed in the report need to be eliminated, not consolidated. Turning 82 teacher quality programs into, say, 10 doesn’t change the fact that the federal government should not be involved in education in the first place. (Not to mention that the federal government’s involvement in education has been a failure.)

Throughout the decades, numerous efforts have been undertaken to clean up the federal bureaucracy (e.g., Hoover Commission, Grace Commission, and Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government”). None of these house cleaning endeavors curbed the federal government’s expansion, let alone tamed the bureaucratic wilds.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers delegated to the federal government by the Constitution “are few and defined.” However, the federal government gradually assumed powers that are now many and undefined. Excessive bureaucracy is a natural, and inevitable, result. Thus, those policymakers who are sincerely concerned with bureaucratic duplication and waste should focus their efforts on reinstituting limits on the government’s capacity to spend. Policymakers who pretend otherwise are just wasting their time — and that of taxpayers.

Two Reasons Governors Should Stop Implementing ObamaCare

The Washington Post reports:

Practically every week, a Republican governor or lawmaker announces a new effort to kill the health-care law or undercut its implementation.

Unfortunately, many of those same governors are still implementing the law when they should be outright refusing to do so.

In my Kaiser Health News column today, I offer two reasons why (at least) Republican governors should stop implementing ObamaCare:

Swearing an oath to support the Constitution also obligates governors to use lawful means to prevent its unlawful abuse. Governors who believe ObamaCare to be unconstitutional are as duty-bound to stop implementing the law as they are to challenge it in court…

It is the height of fiscal irresponsibility to be making new spending commitments (1) when the federal deficit is $1.5 trillion and state budget deficits are a cumulative $175 billion, (2) when those new commitments create a framework for a massive new entitlement program, and (3) when that new spending comes under the auspices of a law that has been invalidated by one federal court and may be invalidated by the nation’s highest court.

So far, the only governors I’ve seen take a firm stand against implementing the law are Rick Scott (R-FL) and Sean Parnell (R-AK), who respectively govern the fourth-largest and the fourth-smallest states.  (Disclosure: I served on Rick Scott’s transition team.)

Health Care Ruling a Victory for Federalism and Individual Liberty

Today’s ruling vindicates the constitutional first principle that ours is a government of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers. Like Judge Hudson in the Virginia case, Judge Vinson recognized that the individual mandate represents an unprecedented and improper incursion beyond those powers: the federal government, under the guise of regulating commerce, cannot require that people engage in economic activity.

And this is as it should be: if the only limit on congressional power were Congress’ own assessment of the wisdom of each assertion of such power, the Constitution would be obsolete – as would any conception of checks and balances. James Madison, the author of the Federalist Paper (51) explaining how man’s non-angelic nature requires explicit limits on those who govern, would spin in his grave. As even would Alexander Hamilton – perhaps the Framer most favorably disposed to strong central power – who cautioned that courts should not be in the business of evaluating the “more or less necessity” of a piece of legislation but rather define judicially administrable rules to guide (but also limit) Congress’s actions.

And so today’s ruling, in a lawsuit that now has 26 states as plaintiffs – with two others challenging the health care “reform” separately – represents the latest and most significant victory for federalism and individual liberty. This will not end until the Supreme Court has its say, but the tide is clearly running in freedom’s favor.

I will comment further once I’ve had a chance to read through the ruling.