Finding Americans fed up with governmental abuses isn’t hard. They wonder why we have politicians who spend too much, bureaucrats who regulate too much, and officials who limit our freedom at almost every turn.
The answer, I believe, is mostly rooted in ignorance. They’ve either forgotten what they once knew about the U.S. Constitution and the clear, necessary limits that it places on government — or they never really knew it in the first place.
This ignorance is at the heart of many of the policy debates that dominate the news cycle week in and week out. They nearly all boil down to a fundamental disagreement over what the Constitution says or means.
Which is remarkable, really. Our elected officials swear an oath before God and all of us to preserve, protect and defend that Constitution. How can they do that if they don’t know what they’re upholding?
There is, of course, another option: They know what the Constitution says, but deliberately work around it, confident that few of their constituents know it any better than they do. Or if those constituents do know, they’re too busy to notice or too apathetic to do anything about it.
Whatever the cause, our nation’s future depends on a serious course correction — a return to the constitutional principles that made it great.
If you don’t think the problem is that serious, let me acquaint you with the two piles of documents that sit in Mike Lee’s office. Mr. Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, writes about them in his new book, “Our Lost Constitution.” They really illustrate how deeply unmoored we’ve become — how far we’ve moved from our constitutional roots.
One of those piles contains all the legislation Congress passed in 2013. It contains about 800 pages and stands a few inches tall. The other holds all the rules and regulations that federal agencies proposed or adopted that same year. It contains 80,000 pages and stands 11 feet tall.
There’s the problem in a nutshell. If you think you’re governed by the men and women you elect to office — individuals whom you hold accountable at the ballot box — think again. You’re governed by nameless, faceless bureaucrats you’ll probably never meet. They may mean well, but they certainly aren’t worried about displeasing people who have no say in whether or not they’ll keep their jobs.
Mr. Lee’s book focuses on a few key parts of the Constitution to help us better understand the forces at work behind certain modern debates. Take the great compromise that made the Constitution possible: the origination clause.
That dull-sounding name actually masks a hotly contested debate that almost sunk the Constitution as it was being hammered out in 1787. Why do we have a Senate with equal representation for each state, and a House with proportional representation? It was a compromise between small states that wanted the former, and large states that wanted the latter.
But the linchpin of that compromise was something Ben Franklin proposed: All tax bills would originate in the House, not the Senate.
Why does that matter today? Because in 2009, when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to raise the money for Obamacare, he did it by successfully proposing an amendment that turned a House tax bill into a health care reform bill — in plain violation (at least in spirit) of the origination clause.
Just think, Mr. Lee says, if President Obama and Harry Reid hadn’t flouted this clause. Americans wouldn’t have lost health plans they wanted. “The economy would be stronger,” he adds. “Taxes would be lower. Health care would be better.”
Things would be better still if the Constitution was treated as a reliable guide by honorable leaders, not as an unfortunate roadblock by opportunistic politicians. Don’t like how things are going? Read it. Reread it. And insist on electing leaders who do the same — and actually live by it.
- Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation
Originally appeared in The Washington Times