May/June 1996

A Citizen Congress Could Restore Constitution

The prospect of a presidential campaign featuring Bill Clinton and Bob Dole is, to understate the case, an unpleasant one. Neither man has a commitment to limited government or the ideals on which the United States was founded. Both are career politicians, opposed to real term limits and unflinching in their willingness to use government to intervene in the affairs of civil society.

President Clinton, it seems to me, is openly contemptuous of the American people. When public criticism of the apparent duplicity of the First Lady was growing late last year, the president said, "I said before and I'll say again, if everybody in the country had the character that my wife has, we'd be a better place to live." Now, leaving aside the issue of Hillary Clinton's character, no matter how stellar it might be, it is wholly inappropriate and remarkably insulting for the president of the United States to make such a comment about the American people.

Even more insulting, however, was the president's state of the union address in which he announced with a straight face that "the era of big government is over." That from a president who would increase spending over the next seven years by some $4 trillion more than during the previous seven years; who tried to turn one-seventh of the national economy over to the federal government; who has not proposed eliminating a single cabinet post, major agency, or program; and who, in that very speech, proposed giving $1,000 of taxpayers' money to every high school valedictorian in the nation.

In the face of such hypocrisy the Republicans might be expected to put forward a candidate of principle who would point out the absurdity of Clinton's claiming that the era of big government is over. But, no, the GOP offers up lifetime politician Bob Dole, who had this to say when asked by U.S.A. Today why he wants to be president: "I think maybe, maybe, I'm trying to think of the word here, a coming together, maybe. I won't say it's my time, but maybe someone like myself who has the background, when we have the problems I think they can be solved — a sort of coming together to make it work. You get into the vision. My vision is what I've just said."

Well, we've come a long way since Jefferson, haven't we? The question is, Why? Why has our presidential system generated these individuals as major presidential candidates over the past three elections: George Bush, Michael Dukakis, George Bush, Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Bill Clinton?

One answer is that professional politicians dominate the political landscape. Political careerists tend to be disdainful of constitutional constraints on their ability to "run" the country. It's safe to venture, for instance, that the constitutional authority for effectively turning health care over to the federal government is an issue that never entered lifetime politician Bill Clinton's mind. Watching 35-year legislator Bob Dole pull out his copy of the Tenth Amendment is a joke — there's not a single New Deal abridgment of the Tenth Amendment on which Senator Dole hasn't signed off.

Even Newt Gingrich is fond of citing his "futurist" gurus Alvin and Heidi Toffler's claim that the Constitution was fine for the Second Wave but clearly not appropriate for the Third Wave we are experiencing today.

But the truth is, if taken seriously, the Constitution is a great document that will do very nicely, thank you, in the Third, Fourth, Fifth or Whatever Wave a free society generates. Article I, Section 8, lists the delegated, enumerated, and therefore limited powers of Congress. Only a conscious misreading of the commerce clause and the general welfare clause has allowed the true intent of the Framers to be ignored.

The Constitution was not meant to be divined by scholars on high. It was meant to be clearly understood by the intelligent layman. Term limits will give us the kind of citizen legislators who will breathe new life into the Constitution and its role in limiting the powers of the federal government.

Along the way we will also find candidates for president of the United States who are worthy of the office.

Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute.