Thursday, February 26, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – (Mis)interpreting the General Welfare Clause (Part 8)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

In this series, we have presented various viewpoints about how the government derives its power and abilities. The truth is that there is much debate over the extent of what the federal government should be involved in. Our nation continues to give up increasing power and authority to the federal government – at the expense of states’ right and individual liberties (see Part 2 and Part 5).

We’ve also seen how the founding fathers had some disagreement over the extent of defined federal powers in the Constitution (Part 6). On the conservative side of the issue, both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed the expenditure of federal tax dollars for road-building projects – simply because they could find no authority to explicitly do so in the Constitution. They chose to leave this to the states and to private enterprise.

So where did the idea start that the federal government could get a foothold into almost anything? It all began with four little words in the Preamble of the Constitution – in the very first sentence:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“Promote the general Welfare” – these are words that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly wished that he had left out when writing the document. It is these words upon which most of our governmental leaders base their ability to spend tax money. Read the above preamble once again – but leave out these four words – and you will see an entirely different and far more limited view of government than we have today.

The general welfare clause appears again in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8, which lists the powers given to the Congress. And the Congress has used (and sometimes abused) this clause to the fullest – they build roads, fund overseas abortion clinics, impose exhorbitant income taxes, and even tax death through inheritance tax laws. Alexander Hamilton, one of the very first proponents of a liberal definition of “general welfare” said, “[T]he power to raise money is plenary and indefinite [in the Constitution]. The terms general welfare were doubtless intended to signify more than was expressed.” Trillions of tax dollars would agree with him.

The sad fact is that promotion of “general welfare” is such an ill-defined and nebulous phrase that there will be no end to the debate over its meaning. Indeed, instead of debating the legality of whether the federal government should fund medical research for cancer, nearly all of our lawmakers will just argue about the amount to spend or which lab in their state will get the money. It seems a foregone conclusion among members of Congress that they have the right to spend our money wherever they wish. And they have taken it even farther – by spending our children’s and grandchildren’s money today, through deficit spending. Any government deficit today must be paid by taxes tomorrow. The amount of debt that our leaders are incurring today necessitates the taxing of money that our offspring have not yet earned. And when you look at it that way, does that really fit with the Constitutional preamble, when it says we should “secure the blessings of Liberty to…our Posterity”? Our posterity is the future generations of Americans that will follow us. Shouldn’t their welfare be taken into account, as well?

Next article: What brought about the birth of “judicial activism”? Was this interpretation intended by the founding fathers? Back to the main index article.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Banking and The Federal Reserve Act (Part 7)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

At one time, many United States coins contained precious metal – either gold or silver. Ask anyone over the age of forty, and it is likely that they have some old silver coins tucked away in a drawer or shoebox somewhere. Coinage had real value at one time. The metal in a silver 1964 quarter might have really been worth twenty-five cents. Today, inflation and the price of precious metal make the melt value of that same quarter equivalent to $2.61. Contrast that with a newly-minted quarter, which contains both copper and nickel – but no precious metal – and has a melt value of just over two cents.

Until 1957, the government also used to print paper money which said “Silver Certificate” on it (they looked much like our currency does today – see above). You could actually go to the treasury and exchange it for the face value in real silver (look carefully at the picture above and you will see that it says, “Five Dollars in silver payable to the bearer on demand”). In later times, you could trade the certificate in for an equal value in silver dollars. But when the price of silver began to rise, and people began hoarding silver certificates, the government declared an end to this exchange practice in 1964. In fact, the United States has gone through a curious progression of backing its money against various metal standards – starting first with a dual gold and silver standard set by Alexander Hamilton. In 1873, the Coinage Act placed the US strictly on the gold standard (much to the silver miner’s dismay). But after the Great Depression started, the US reverted to the silver standard in 1933. Today’s paper currency is stamped with the words “Federal Reserve Note” and a dollar bill is worth a dollar only because the government says so (the same applies to our coins). It now has no connection to precious metal in any way.

An important event happened in 1913, which forever changed the way that money supply would be handled in our country. Some years before this date, there had been a series of minor financial panics (1873, 1893, 1907) and there was concern that a bank run (when a large portion of bank customers wish to withdraw all their money in cash) would leave people without the ability to get their hands on their money. One proposed way to prevent bank runs is to have a regulated money supply which “expands” when the situation demands it. In essence, more money is printed to give to people when they require it. So, the nation turned to the federal government in 1913 to create the Federal Reserve – a federal agency which is now responsible for monitoring and manipulating the money supply, regardless of the presence of gold or silver backing.

The reason for the creation of the Federal Reserve was simply to prevent the recurrence of financial panic and to manipulate the money supply in order to preserve stability. Yet, a mere sixteen years later, the stock market crashed again and the United States entered the worst depression in its history – the Great Depression of 1929.

An analysis of the price of goods over the history of our country shows that from 1789 to 1913, the prices of various goods remained virtually the same (with ups and downs along the way). But since the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, prices have risen an average of 20X. It’s true that wages have increased over that time, too. The reason for the increase in both is simply stated as inflation – which is defined as an increase in the overall supply of money. When the federal government stopped backing each coin or bill with precious metal, they essentially gave themselves the power to print money at will. But, as is evident, printing more money merely devalues the worth of each dollar. Wages rise, and prices rise – but is the government’s legalized manipulation of the money supply really creating stability? One could argue that it has had the opposite effect.

Here’s a simple comparison. The financial rules for the federal government are really no different than those of a typical American family. If you don’t have enough money for something, you probably should not buy it. If you must borrow the money, you should make sure that you have the means to pay it back in a reasonable amount of time. The government, even though it is very large and often difficult to understand, is not exempt from these basic principles. Imagine what would happen if each family simply printed the money that they need for everything, in the comfort of their living room – even if it were legal to do so! Common sense tells us that this system would not last long. Likewise, we should be warning our government officials of the problems that we all will encounter if they continue to spend, borrow and manipulate the money supply to their own ends.

Next article: What is the “General Welfare Clause” and should I like it? Back to the main index article.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Enumerated Powers vs. Implied Powers (Part 6)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

Where does the government derive its powers? What allows the government to legally take actions such as declaring war, taxing an inheritance, or building a highway? The answer is that it must come from the Constitution, or one of its modifiers such as the Bill of Rights or a Constitutional Amendment. Without an authority to refer to, the government could very well be acting in an illegal manner!

The limit of this authority is a topic which was hotly debated by the founding fathers. Having escaped from the tyranny of King George III in Britain and his frequently oppressive rule, the founders were conscious that they should avoid the formation of a government which could impose subjective and capricious rules on its people. In their eyes, the government was in place to support the people’s will – not crush their liberties. And so they were very specific about defining the role and powers given to the government.

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution details the powers that Congress may employ. This section lists exactly eighteen different “powers”, and includes items such as the ability to collect taxes to pay for defense and general welfare, to borrow money, to coin money, to establish Post Offices, to declare war, and to maintain a navy. Obviously, the list has to have limits, as it cannot go on forever. There are some debatable items in the list regarding the extent to which they may be taken (such as the General Welfare clause, which we will take up in Part 8), but viewed in perspective, the list is relatively short. Remember, the founders intended for specifics to be delegated by the states – not by the federal government. To add even more weight to this argument, consider the short but powerful words of the Tenth Amendment.

In 1791, President George Washington was considering the idea of a national bank. In order to better understand the constitutionality of this enterprise, he asked two others to provide him with arguments for and against the idea. These two men were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Knowing that these two men were at the opposite ends of the spectrum on the interpretation of the Constitution, he undoubtedly expected to get both sides of the argument. He was not disappointed.

As expected, Thomas Jefferson, a strict and conservative interpreter of the Constitution, found no basis for the legality of establishing a national bank. His belief was that the Constitution listed the express powers of the government – and that there were no other powers to be inferred. In short, if it wasn’t explicitly listed in the Constitution as a federal power, then the government could not legally engage in the act. Thus, the idea of Jeffersonian democracy, which believes that the national government is a dangerous necessity to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, and that it should be watched closely.

Alexander Hamilton used this opportunity to formulate a new approach to the Constitution – the idea of implied powers. In his response to Washington, he stated that “there are implied, as well as express powers [in the Constitution], and that the former are as effectually delegated as the latter.” He added that, “Implied powers are to be considered as delegated [to the federal government] equally with express ones”. In just two sentences, Hamilton advocated for unlimited and unchecked power by the federal government. One could make the argument that he would be happy with the state of our government today.

The problem with implied powers is that there is no clearly defined point at which to restrict the government’s power over the people. Where does the “power grab” end? If we trust that our leaders will understand when they overstep their boundaries and will agree to pull back, then we will be very disappointed, for that is not in their nature. Nevertheless, the founders had to know that they could not think of every possible situation where government involvement might be needed. And indeed, they did know this. Article 5 of the Constitution provides for the ability to propose and ratify amendments to the Constitution whenever Congress “shall deem it necessary”. The process to adopt an amendment is not an easy one. The amendment must be proposed by two-thirds of the Congress, or two-thirds of the state legislatures. To be adopted, it must be ratified by no less than three-quarters of the state legislatures. Imagine the difficulty in getting 75% of the states to agree on anything! Surely the founders knew this.

And this provides the reasoned argument as to why the concept of implied powers could not have been in the thinking of the writers of the Constitution. Within the words of the Constitution are the instructions for creating and passing changes to the document. If powers were meant to be inferred and added to the government’s list of duties, why make the amendment process so specific and difficult? Clearly, the founders wanted Constitutional change to be an event that was rare and carefully considered. In his farewell address in 1796, Washington said, “If in the opinion of the People, the distribution of modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation…”

There are still a few leaders today who understand this principle. Each year, Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona poses a bill to the United States Congress called the “Enumerated Powers Act”. Adoption of the bill would require that bills proposed to the Congress specifically list the constitutional authority on which the proposal is based. As might be expected, our leaders have not chosen to enact the law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823, “On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” While we witness the ever-increasing federal power grab over our individual liberties, these would be good words to heed.

Next article: What happened to my money when the Federal Reserve Act became law in 1913? Back to the main index article.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Secession and Nullification (Part 5)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

The word “secession” has taken on a negative connotation today. The idea of at state refusing to abide by the rules imposed by the federal government and deciding to govern itself entirely – the very definition of the word “secession” – is problematic for most people. After all, we are the United States of America, and we should stay that way regardless of the consequences, right?

Nullification is similar to secession in that it is the refusal of a state to accept a law handed down by a federal authority. It is like secession, but without the final step of complete separation from the overall entity. We hear little about the concept of secession, and most students today would reject the possibility of a state even considering the refusal to obey a federal statute.

You may be surprised, then, to learn that secession and nullification were accepted practices in the days of the founding fathers. Indeed, the decision by the thirteen states to declare independence from the English monarchy has been referred to as being more like a secession than an actual revolution. These states decided to forego the rules and oversight of the king of England and live by their own standards and government. On the topic of secession, Thomas Jefferson (the author of the Declaration of Independence) said in his first inaugural address of 1801, “If there be any among us who wish to dissolve the Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed, as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Both Jefferson and James Madison wrote on the topic of nullification, saying, “where powers were assumed by the national government which had not been granted by the states, nullification is the rightful remedy," and that every state has a right to "nullify of its own authority all assumptions of power by others. . ." Strong words!

Even Abraham Lincoln said in an 1848 speech that, “Any people whatsoever have the right to abolish the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right.” And yet, in his inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln implied that the sovereignty of the Union outweighed that of the individual states and that, in this matter, the Constitution actually abridged the founders’ intent! And on this platform, he denied the rights of the Southern states who had seceded from the Union, and invaded them with the Northern army. At one point, eleven States officially seceded, in this order – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Horace Greeley, the preeminent newspaperman, chronicled this period in history. In 1861, he wrote that "nine out of ten people of the North were opposed to forcing South Carolina to remain in the Union" for "the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration . . . is that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed." If the southern states wanted to secede, Greeley maintained that most people agreed "they have a clear right to do so."

In a world today which prizes unity, even in situations where it does not fit, the idea of secession appears to be backwards and immature. Yet, the founders supported the idea for one certain reason – the power of individual states should always outweigh that of the central government. Unlike the behavior of today’s government, our forefathers saw the “power pyramid” as being upside-down from how we would perceive it. To them, it was individuals at the top, states next, and the federal government at the bottom of the heap. The very threat of secession was often enough to keep the federal government in check, and the balance of power well-distributed. Many may preach that unity is paramount, but the idea of secession also serves as a deterrent to unlimited federal power. Frank Chodorov wrote in 1952: "If for no other reason, personal pride should prompt every governor and state legislator to take a secessionist attitude; they were not elected to be lackeys of the federal bureaucracy." Which would you rather have – a loose conglomeration of independent states trying to preserve individual freedoms, or a dictating federal monarchy that reduces all of the states to the lowest common denominator?

Curiously, a 2008 Zogby International poll showed that 22% of Americans believe that “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic.”

Search the Constitution and you will not find the words “secession” or “nullification”. But it is clear from the many writings of the founders that they would support the idea. Indeed, they acted it out when they signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”

Next article: What are “enumerated powers” versus “implied powers” in the Constitution? Back to the main index article.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Origin and Curse of the Federal Income Tax (Part 4)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

For anyone who has ever received a paycheck, it may seem hard to imagine a time when there was no such thing as a federal income tax. One-hundred short years ago, there was no federal income tax in place. Today, we take it for granted that a large part – a very large part – of our paycheck will never be deposited in our bank account. We live in a time where the federal government continues to grow bigger and more bloated than ever before. The number of programs funded by our government is vast. Is this practice constitutional?

The original Constitution did not provide for broad powers of taxation at the federal level. Taxes were outlined in Article 1, Section 8, which says, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”. Disregarding for the moment the “general welfare” clause (which we’ll cover in Part 8), this does not give Congress a lot of things on which to spend money. I certainly don’t see Social Security, payments to illegal immigrants, or the funding of non-US, overseas abortion clinics in those words. In fact, the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the US Constitution and which give us insight into the mind of the founders, gave the federal government no ability to tax whatsoever. The founding fathers’ ideas on federal taxation may best be summed up in the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said, “…a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government”.

In principle, the very purpose of government was simply to protect the freedom of the individual and their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – nothing more. Our government is well beyond that today, in large part due to the Sixteenth Amendment. This amendment was proposed by the administration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913, and was ratified by the states in 1916. It is one of the briefest amendments, and simply says, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Before this Amendment, the federal government had a shaky claim to taxing any of our income. Now, your Congressmen and President have free reign.

The very first round of federal income taxes actually occurred before this date. Under the Abraham Lincoln administration, in 1862, a federal income tax was collected, to help pay for the Civil War. At that time, anyone earning less than $10,000 per year was taxed at a 3% rate; anyone earning more than $10,000 per year was taxed at a rate of 5%. Compare that to what you pay in federal tax today! However, people couldn’t long accept this burden, and the federal income tax was abolished in 1872. It didn’t come back until the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1916.

We spoke of state’s rights in Part 2 of this series. Does the adoption of the federal income tax affect the power of states in any way? Yes, it does. Consider the fact that a great deal of federally-collected money is returned to the states each year. This money is not required to be given back in proportion to the size of the state or the number of its population. So, each state fights for its’ share of the federal money, giving much more power to the elected officials at the national level. State legislatures scrap for every last dollar, whether the cause is noble or even necessary, because someone else will get the money if they don’t. States are often coerced to “toe the line” with regards to federal government wishes, because the feds can threaten to withhold money from the state if the state doesn’t comply with what they want in Washington. An example is the virtual blackmail that occurs whenever a state decides they want to raise the interstate speed limit above the federal recommendation. If they threaten to raise it, the federal government returns the threat by withholding certain funds originally slated for road improvements. Doesn’t it make more sense for the state to both set their speed limit and fix their own roads? Imagine the differences that would ensue! No two states would be alike, and we could glory in their uniqueness! Alas, this is one area where "diversity" is discouraged by the federal government.

Frank Chodorov said it best, in his 1954 paper The Income Tax: Root of All Evil:

“For the Sixteenth Amendment corroded the American concept of natural rights; ultimately reduced the American citizen to a status of subject, so much so that he is not aware of it; enhanced Executive power to the point of reducing Congress to innocuity; and enabled the central government to bribe the states, once independent units, into subservience. No kingship in the history of the world ever exercised more power than our Presidency, or had more of the people’s wealth at its disposal.”

It should be clear that the federal income tax, while both legal and constitutional, exceeds the boundaries envisioned by the founders, in part because of the corruption it creates and the undesirable consolidation of federal power to which it leads. Do you want to fight it? Good luck, because the federal government will use your own tax money to fight you in court and build your prison cell if you refuse to pay…

Next article: What are the concepts of secession and nullification about? And was Abraham Lincoln really a good president? Back to the main index article.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Government Debt (Part 3)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

Imagine if you could simply go out and buy whatever you dream about having, right now, without worry about how you were going to pay for it. For me, that would be a mid-1960’s Chevrolet Corvette, preferably a 1963 or a 1967 with a few special features that I won’t burden you with here. I’ve always wanted one, and there are ways to have one in my garage right now. One of those ways is to simply tell the auto dealer that my kids will pay for it, plus whatever interest accrues between now and then. They can worry about how to pay for it – I want the car now! Most people would think such an approach to be irresponsible and selfish – and they would be right. But this story is an exact allegory to what happens when our government borrows money to pay for a program that they cannot afford today.

Article 6 of the US Constitution allowed the government to assume pre-existing debt before its ratification. One can infer that debt, while perhaps unwise, is certainly not prohibited by the Constitution. Debt is mentioned in one or two other places so, by implication, it would seem that government debt is allowed.

At one time, if the federal government wanted to enact a new program, they would pose the idea, discuss it, and if it passed the Congress in a vote, it would be financed by a new tax or a re-direction of existing money. But we live in a time when Congress behaves with far more impatience. Rather than wait to ensure that the money exists, Congress simply borrows the money, assumes a debt, and promises to repay it at a later date. As you might imagine, it is much easier to get funding by borrowing than it is to gain permission from the people through a new tax. Let’s face it, we don’t get an itemized tax bill from the government telling us exactly where our money is going. If we did, I have a feeling that we would be surprised…and not a little upset.

Government programs can grow unchecked because their cost is deferred to the future. Like the Corvette example, our politicians are comfortable allowing our children and grandchildren to pay for the things that they want to have now. The average individual does not “feel” this occurrence because their tax bill does not grow dramatically in the current year. But it should be understood that the government has already spent your tax money (and that of your children) for many years into the future, and they will continue to add to the amount between now and then. Simply put, an increasing national debt and a government which is unwilling to stop spending means that our future tax rates (and those of our children) must be driven higher than they are today.

Thomas Jefferson suggested a unique approach to this problem. Jefferson believed strongly that any new government debt should be paid off by current taxpayers, so as not to burden the next generation. He favored limiting any government debt terms to nineteen years – precisely to keep the repayment in the generation which enjoyed the benefits. What a brilliant idea! If only we had adhered to that concept after Jefferson proposed it!

To get an idea of the history of our national debt, consider these milestones:

· Late 1700’s – the national debt was $83 million, primarily due to funding of the Revolutionary War
· 1801 – Jefferson elected President, vowed to reduce the debt
· At the end of Jefferson’s terms, the debt was reduced to $57 million
· The War of 1812 – debt rose to $127 million
· Andrew Jackson campaigned on a platform of eliminating the debt, elected President in 1829
· Jackson paid off the national debt in 1835 – the government ran a surplus of $440,000 that year
· Small financial panics and wars drove the debt back up to $63 million by 1848
· Under President Abraham Lincoln, due to the financing of the Civil War, the debt rose to an astounding $2.8 billion
· Today, the national debt exceeds $10.6 trillion (visit the national debt clock to watch it grow)

Unlike private individuals who have an obligation to repay their debts, politicians have no personal responsibility to do so. They spend other people’s money and go into debt with the obligation resting on other people’s children. And not just politicians – those private individuals who today beg their congressmen to deliver a rescue plan at the detriment of future generations are just as complicit. We are quickly becoming a nation who would mortgage the future of our own children for the comfort and pleasure of whatever we can have today. Most people would say that a parent behaving this way is a poor provider. It is no different with the government. If you think that there are some special protections or safeties in allowing our nation’s leaders to follow this path, while knowing that any private individual would be headed for disaster under the same rules - think again.

Next article: What is the Sixteenth Amendment about? How did it forever change the issue of states’ rights? What would the founding fathers have thought? Back to the main index article.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – States’ Rights (Part 2)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

In a recent news article, we see the state of California making clear its desire to self-impose tougher auto emissions standards than are called for by the federal government. The current president is mulling this over (the former president rejected it), while several other states are joining California in suing the federal government for not allowing the state to implement this law.

If you know anything about the Constitution and the original vision of the founders, you will see the incongruity of these stories with the ideals of our forefathers. The truth is that the original states were clearly separate from each other and largely independent of any federal restrictions. In fact, the founders’ vision was that power rested first with the individual, second with the state, and last at the federal level. Each state legislature wielded a great deal of power and independent decision-making ability. If this seems strange, consider this. Before 1913, United States senators were not elected. Instead, they were appointed by each state legislature (see the original Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution), with the intent that they would vote along lines set by each legislature. U.S. senators were not given a very long leash to vote as they wished, because they ran the risk of being removed by the state. Their power derived from the state, which was itself made up of individuals who were fiercely loyal (and uniquely devoted) to their own state. This system of states’ rights, curiously, is called federalism. The attitude behind federalism is still in evidence in many states, many of which still take pride in claiming to be the “Show Me” state or were “First in Flight”. If you live in one of these states, you probably know who you are.

This changed in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified by Connecticut, the last vote necessary to meet the Amendment criteria of thirty-six ratifying states. Specifically, the 17th Amendment allows for the direct election of U.S. senators every six years, rather than being appointed by the state legislatures. If the distinction between the two systems is lost on you, consider this: a U.S. senator now has no direct responsibility to act or vote along the lines directed by his people back in the state. Instead, he or she is now inundated with federal programs that must be managed across many states, and is constantly competing for federal money which may come back to his or her state, so that jobs are “created”, the people are somewhat satisfied, and the senator can gain re-election. This serves to vastly increase the role of the federal government in our everyday lives, while reducing the power and independence of the states. And this is evidenced in today’s headlines when the President is deciding whether or not to allow a state to enact more stringent guidelines than the federal government requires.

Just to state my point of view for a moment, I believe the states should be allowed to make all such decisions, on their own, without interference from the federal government. Montana should be free to set their highway speed limit wherever they like without the threat of the federal government refusing highway improvement money. In fact, they should take all of that federal tax money slated for highway improvements and give it back to the individual who paid it originally. If the state wants to enact a highway improvement, then let them do so through their own legislature, and the votes of the people. Why does the federal government take money from the taxpayer, only to distribute it back to the states? Such a system is inefficient and extremely subject to corruption.

As an example of the way things used to work before the 17th Amendment, consider the case of John Quincy Adams in 1809. His state legislature of Massachusetts made their mind known to him regarding a piece of trade embargo legislation, and instructed him to vote against the motion. He was not of this opinion, and so resigned his seat, rather than oppose his state lawmakers. Similarly, when President Andrew Jackson was censured in 1834 for posturing against the federal bank, seven U.S. senators resigned their post, rather than vote to remove the censure as their legislatures recommended. Can you imagine a senator doing this today? No, today our senators openly rally for campaign funds in other states and foreign countries, making them more open to corruption than ever.

James Madison had it right in Federalist #45 when he said, “each of the principal branches of the federal government will owe its existence more or less to the favor of the State governments, and must consequently feel a dependence”, and in Federalist #46 that the federal government will “be disinclined to invade the rights of the individual States, or the prerogatives of their governments.” Indeed, the Constitution itself was not ratified as a kind of “national” effort. It was studied, weighed and voted upon by individual states – each of which had differing overall opinions and discussions.

It’s important to understand how our government differs today from how the founders envisioned it. Perhaps it’s time to consider a repeal of an amendment or two. Frank Chodorov, author of The Income Tax: Root of All Evil, perhaps said it best when he stated, “The freedoms won by Americans in 1776 were lost in the revolution of 1913.”

Next article: Is it okay for the government to go into debt? Is it constitutional? Back to the main index article.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Presidential Power (Part 1)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

As a nation, we pay an incredible amount of attention to the election of our presidents. If you’re not sufficiently tired of the election cycle that ended only a couple of months ago, fear not – it will all start again in about two-and-a-half years. It seems to be the ultimate reality show, made for television.

Already, the newspapers and other media outlets are looking to our new President to single-handedly solve the perceived problems in our nation. If you were an alien just landing on earth and you happened to drop in front of a television, you would think that the President has the power to do anything, fix anything, and change anything. He seems to be larger-than-life and is credited with far more wisdom than any other person in our land.

Similarly, whenever there is a question of right and wrong that is not adequately resolved between men or institutions, we are content to run to the Supreme Court as the final arbiter for any issue. Again, to an outsider it would seem that the nine justices of the Court possess such vast wisdom that no problem is too hard to tackle. And we let them get away with wielding this power. But between the President and the Supreme Court, are we correct in assigning them this amount of authority?

Article II of the Constitution contains four distinct sections which describe the duties and limits of the President. The specific authority given to the President includes: Commander in Chief of the military, authority over other members of the Executive branch, the power to grant reprieves and pardons, the ability to make treaties (with congressional approval), the power to nominate ambassadors and Supreme Court justices, and the authority to appoint Senate vacancies during recess periods. His duties include: making a State of the Union address, he may convene or adjourn both Houses as necessary, receive ambassadors, commission officers, and “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. That’s all – there is nothing more in the Constitution to define the power or duties of the office of President.

The power and duties of Supreme Court justices are vague indeed – see Article III. They have authority to hear cases deemed to be of a federal nature, and they have the ability to exercise “appellate jurisdiction”, meaning they can review state-level cases that are deemed necessary to review. Beyond that, little is said about their role.

To properly interpret the relationship between the three different branches of government, one should look to the words of the founding fathers, who clearly meant for checks and balances to exist. Their greatest fear was the rebirth of a monarchy like the one they had fled in England. They did not want their President to be a king, nor did they intend for nine judges (originally six), appointed for life, to singlehandedly interpret the Constitution and wield it over the people. Rather, the founders issued countless letters ensuring that power stayed with the people, in their respective states.

To give an example, consider the presidency of Andrew Jackson. During his term, he was committed to the dissolution of the United States Bank, and argued vehemently for its demise. He sparred with Justice John Marshall during this time, and their argument included the topic of constitutional authority. Marshall declared that the Supreme Court was the ultimate decider on what is constitutional and what is not. Jackson found this outrageous, and said,

“To this conclusion I cannot assent…Congress and the President as well as the Court must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution. It is as much the duty of the House of Representatives, of the Senate, and of the President to decide upon the constitutionality of any bill or resolution which may be presented…The opinion of the [Supreme Court] judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both” (see for further details).
These are tremendously important words, and very different from the behavior we witness today. Jackson understood that no single branch of government had overarching constitutional authority. There are many examples in early America of states ignoring the laws handed down by federal officials (including the President) because, simply put, it was understood that state’s rights were sovereign. That little fact was the original construct of our government….and it’s been forgotten.

Next article: States’ rights versus central government rights, and the curse of the Seventeenth Amendment. Back to the main index article.