Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

Constitutional Lines

August 30, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

We have observed in these letters that the recent debt ceiling debate reflected deep divisions in Washington, D.C., but that those divisions, in turn, reflected the citizenry’s ambivalence about how big government should be, how much it should do, and how much it should tax, borrow, and regulate.  The first phase of the debt ceiling debate ended with legislation to raise the nation’s legal borrowing authority by $900 billion and to cut planned federal spending over the next decade by a little more than that amount.  Thus, Congress and the president achieved Speaker of the House John Boehner’s goal to match any debt ceiling increase, at least dollar-for-dollar, by deficit reductions.

The legislation also sets in motion a second phase, where a “super committee” of six members of the House of Representatives (three from each party) and six senators (also three from each party) will endeavor to reduce the nation’s deficit spending over the next ten years by a further $1.5 trillion.  If the committee agrees on a plan by November 23, 2011, Congress approves it in an up-or-down vote without the possibility of offering amendments by December 23, 2011, and the president signs it, the debt ceiling will be increased by $1.5 trillion.  If the committee can’t agree on a plan, or submits one the Congress votes down or the president vetoes, the debt ceiling will be increased by $1.2 trillion, and automatic reductions of federal spending by the same amount over the next decade will take effect – spending cuts evenly divided between discretionary domestic programs and national defense spending.

It is remarkable that, three years after the Democrats’ across-the-board victories in the 2008 elections, deficit reduction has become the top item on the national political agenda.  The most important cause of this change in the political weather is the emergence of the Tea Party movement, which took shape in 2009 and propelled Republican gains in the elections of 2010.  That movement remains disparate – it has no headquarters, no single leader, and no agreed upon platform.  Yet some core ideas do connect all of the Tea Party’s factions and actions. One friendly observer described the Tea Party essence as “populist constitutionalism,” since its “divergent groups agree that the federal government has, over the last several decades, stepped further and further outside of the bounds of the Constitution.”  Some of the movement’s prominent figures describe themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

The endeavor to re-establish limits to the government’s sphere of action and authority is highly laudable, and fully consistent with the logic and spirit of the American founding.  That undertaking will, however, be an intellectual challenge.  Reasonable patriots may disagree about the location of the line the authors of the Constitution drew separating what the government may do from what it must not do.  They may disagree, as well, about whether the logic of the Constitution countenances informal adjustments to the location of the government’s boundaries over time, or demands formal adjustments only, using one of the procedures for amending the Constitution specified in its fifth article.

For example, the power of Congress to declare war, specified in Article I, has fallen into disuse.  America hasn’t declared war against any nation since 1941, yet has been involved in a number of wars over the past 70 years, some of them large and prolonged.  Does constitutional conservatism, rightly understood, entail retroactively designating all of these wars – including Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan – illegitimate for never having been formally declared?  If so, then either Congress must declare war to authorize future martial actions, or the nation must amend the Constitution to give explicit legitimacy to the kinds of authorizations Congress has come to rely on, such as the Tonkin Gulf resolution that was the legal basis for the war in Vietnam.  If not, then resolutions and authorizations that fall short of formal declarations of war have acquired a de facto constitutionality: They aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, seem not to have been envisioned or favored by the Constitution’s authors, have not been the subject of any constitutional amendment, yet have gained acceptance as the way the federal government arrives at decisions about military actions.

The fact that there are disputes about the location of the line between what the government may and may not do, and about whether that line is bright and tight, or wide with shades of gray, does not invalidate the constitutional conservative argument that erasing any such line renders America a very different kind of republic.  James Q. Wilson, one of the preeminent American political scientists of the last half century, helps us understand this. The ultimate meaning of the triumph of the New Deal, according to him, is the collapse of the “legitimacy barrier.”  Since its fall, he argued, “political conflict [has taken] a very different form.  New programs need not await the advent of a crisis or an extraordinary majority, because no program is any longer ‘new’—it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing.  Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do.”

The correct label for the alternative to limited government is not big government, but unlimited government.  The destruction of all legitimacy barriers creates a new constitutional logic in which government grows, not just very big, but limitlessly big.  All the forces – political, economic, and judicial – that might constrain it are rendered ineffectual.

This deformation of our republic has gone on so long, and acquired so much inertial strength, that the Tea Party movement’s mission is politically as well as intellectually audacious.  We have had occasion to note in these letters Abraham Lincoln’s argument that “public sentiment is everything” in American democracy: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.  Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.  He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

The ultimate goal of constitutional conservatism is to mold public sentiment into a broad, durable consensus in favor of rebuilding legitimacy barriers in American government.  This is not a task that will be accomplished by one legislative fight over the debt ceiling, or in one or two election cycles.  Conservatives, constitutional and otherwise, sometimes speak as though the establishment and perpetuation of the New Deal is the result of some kind of coup d’état.  The fact is, we have this bloated government because we, the people, have shown our favor to the expansion of government’s activities far more reliably than to their contraction.  The success of constitutional conservatism will depend on exercising the statesmanship that carefully leads the people to set aside their acquired tolerance for a government that purports to have a program for every problem, and rediscover their older apprehensions that any government strong enough to give you anything you want is also strong enough to take away anything you have.

Ohio Farmer