Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Defining the power of the federal government
In the midst of a blizzard of election-year promises, lies, charges, red herrings and worse, it might be worth asking: what Constitutional powers does the Federal government actually have? Surprisingly, not many.
Article one has the bulk of them. The Founders considered Congress to be far and away the most important branch of government, so they devoted the bulk of their time and attention to it. Section 8 enumerates 18 powers, but excluding the formalism of the execution clause (18) and the governance of the District of Columbia (17), leaves 16. Sing along if you know this tune.
Clauses 1,2,5 and 6 have to do with revenue and money: raising money, setting its value, minting and punishment of counterfeiting. Three is the notorious “Commerce Clause,” now stretched beyond recognition to allow Federal intrusion into almost every aspect of life, commercial or not. Four establishes rules for naturalization and bankruptcies; seven, post offices and “post roads” – highways among, not inside, states. Eight establishes a patent system; nine, Federal courts inferior to the Supreme court. The rest, ten through 16, have to do with security and military affairs, including suppression of piracy- considered so important it was mentioned in our founding document.
Article two gives the President a much more constrained list: the power to grant pardons “for offenses against the United States;” to make treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senate concurs; to appoint senior officials, including ambassadors, “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” The President can appoint other officials, provided the Senate allows it, and can make “recess appointments” for a limited period; is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. And that’s about all.
The Constitution even includes, in Amendment Ten, a recapitulation of limits on Federal powers: what is not specifically – meaning in writing, in the Constitution – given the Federal government is forbidden to it. So how did we get a capital so bloated it can’t get out of its own way, let alone ours – and which is rapidly spending us into national bankruptcy?
The answer, I fear, is not pretty: we like it that way. And our political leaders, opportunists, self-servers and cowards that they are, lull us with the thought that we can have everything we want, all the time, if we just let them take a little more from us. Like Hillary Clinton whispering that we can have open borders, free college, free medical care, higher taxes, a booming economy and a balanced budget all at once, it’s nonsense. But it makes us feel good so we believe it.
The problem is, while the Federal government is empowered to control the country’s borders, it is not Constitutionally entitled to pay for citizens’ college or health care, nor for thousands of other things in which it is presently involved. It became the behemoth it is because of a million small advances, each of which seemed a good idea at the time; few of these were opposed by a political class focused on re-election and self-interest rather than the long-term health of the nation and its citizens.
This tendency accelerated under Progressives from Theodore Roosevelt, who famously commented “To Hell with the Constitution! The people want coal…” and his nephew Franklin, who sought to “pack” the Supreme Court with puppets, that he might have his way. This scheme is being replayed by the current president and will be continued by Hillary Clinton: should she win, we will soon witness a court with a majority of Progressive stooges who will nod like a gaggle of bobbleheads at any suggestion from the Clinton White House.
With that, the last roadblock to establishment of a National, not a Federal, government will have been removed; all power will begin to move to Washington and citizens will become cattle to be administered and occasionally milked for votes – something the Constitution was written to forestall. Freedom will evaporate in the face of an all-powerful federal bureaucracy that will control everything from the size of a can of soda or the depth of an irrigation ditch to who gets a heart transplant or lives next door.
No, none of that is constitutionally mandated. But that hasn’t mattered save when the Supreme Court has called the big government crowd’s power-drunk lunacies out-of-bounds. So if the Constitution remains moribund and the Supreme Court becomes a Progressive vassal, the last bar to what Thomas Jefferson described as “A boundless field of power” for these ersatz aristocrats will fall. And we will have a government determined to see that the American people get what it thinks they deserve.
Good and hard.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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