Monday, September 17, 2012

Of First Importance

Today marks the 225th anniversary of signing of America's Constitution. On September 17th, 1787, delegates to the convention met for the final time to sign the document they had spent four months crafting. The Constitution is quite possibly the most remarkable secular text ever written despite being a mere 7,200 words-- or perhaps because it is a mere 7,200 words. This blueprint simply and succinctly lays out a system of government providing three branches of government--an executive branch, a bicameral legislature, and a judicial branch. This provided a solid, but not overreaching, federal government that the Articles of Confederation failed to do. Additionally, the Constitution extends powers to the states, provides the process of both amending and ratifying the document, and denotes the Constitution's legal status. All of these functions are outlined in just seven relatively short articles. There's beauty in succinctness and simplicity, yet too often ugliness in obfuscation and complexity.

It is interesting what the Founders chose to mention first in this document and its various sections, as often, what is mentioned first is what writers or speakers deem most important. The preamble to the Constitution begins with three simple words "We the people". It wasn't "we the delegates" or "we the states". It was "we the people". The individuals at the constitutional convention were delegates from their respective states, but they decided to begin the document as we the people. They did not give special credence to themselves as delegates, although they could have.The Founders were all well versed and intelligent. They did not necessarily even say we the states, although those delegates were representing the states. James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution,  thought that the document was of "the people" because it was ratified by the state legislatures which represented the people. This is what separated a constitution from a league of states or a treaty of states.. A constitution of "we the people" is what made the states truly united as opposed to a loose confederation of states.

Additionally, the Founders chose to begin the Constitution by outlining the legislature, not the executive branch. James Madison often referred to the legislature as the "first branch". The legislature is responsible for making laws. However, through abdications over the years, executive branch agencies and bureaucracies have been given powers by the legislature, except they are usually called regulations when implemented by those outside the legislative branch. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed out an executive order from President Nixon and was ratified by Congressional hearings. While its role is to implement laws passed by Congress, the specific regulations themselves--from light bulbs to power plants-- are dictated by the EPA. More recently, with the passage of Obamacare in 2010, Congress again abdicated much of the control of Medicare spending to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) --"death panel". As Independent Women's Foundation policy analyst Hadley Heath notes:
Each year, the CMS director will submit to IPAB the per-capita growth rate in Medicare and the target per-capita growth rate. Undoubtedly, as health care costs continue on their upward spiral (fueled by government regulations), the growth rate will be higher than the target rate. The mission of IPAB will be to make the two rates match, by drafting a proposal for changes to the Medicare program. This proposal will become law unless Congress, by supermajority in both houses, votes to stop the proposal and comes up with its own plan to match IPAB’s savings. 
Through the passage of Obamacare Congress essentially ceded their ability to provide necessary changes to Medicare to an agency director and an unelected panel appointed by the President. Despite these abdications of power, the Constitution provide a blueprint for what part of government was of first importance--Congress-the body given the power to make laws.

When it comes to the executive branch, the Founders saw one role of the executive to be most important--that of commander-in-chief. The second article of the Constitution describes the executive branch. The first section of this article focuses on the election,qualifications, and oath of office for the president. However, the second article, which lays out the role of the president, begins by laying out the president's position as commander-in-chief. This is something that is unfortunately, for the most part,  lost on our current president, as Andrew McCarthy noted at National Review over the weekend:
Defense against foreign enemies is the primary job of the president of the United States. The rationale for the office’s creation is national defense — not green venture capitalism, not rationing medical care, not improving the self-image of the “Muslim world,” not leaving no child behind, not blowing out the Treasury’s credit line. Yet, though we are entering the late innings, foreign policy and national defense have not been factors in the 2012 campaign.
President Obama has not fulfilled his primary job--commander-in-chief-- as is easily seen by the fact that he has attended less than half of his national security briefings. On the heels of the report of President Obama's lack of attendance at national security briefings came the attacks on US embassies in Egypt and Libya and other areas throughout the Middle East. Attacks that resulted in the death of four Americans including an ambassador and two Marines. Mind you, this consulate that was attacked was in an unstable, Muslim country where there wasn't sufficient security, and the attack occurred on the first September 11th following the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Both parties are guilty of rejecting the ideas of "first importance" espoused by the Founders. Clinging to power, leaders have felt that their role should be "we the government"--that  they know better than us (we the people) how to run our lives and spend our money. At the same time, Congress has too frequently abdicated their role as a legislative body to a power thirsty executive branch. Presidents have acted as if meddling domestically in individuals lives is of first importance than the securing the nation, not in the sense of nation building or military overinvolvement, but of vigilance and deterrence. There is no reason to despair, however, the Founders knew quite well the imperfections of men.

 Of second importance in the Constitution's preamble was to "form a more perfect union"; a perfect or complete union was not possible, but getting closer to completion was indeed possible. They knew that perfection was impossible of a government of men, but they did not succumb to pessimism. Although he was not part of the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson once noted (emphasis added):
We owe every other sacrifice to ourselves, to our federal brethren, and to the world at large to pursue with temper and perseverance the great experiment which shall prove that man is capable of living in [a] society governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and peace; and further, to show that even when the government of its choice shall manifest a tendency to degeneracy, we are not at once to despair, but that the will and the watchfulness of its sounder parts will reform its aberrations, recall it to original and legitimate principles, and restrain it within the rightful limits of self-government.
We have the opportunity--both through our voice and our vote-- to help reform the aberrations of our government and recall it to those original and sound principles--those first principles of self-government. It started with "we the people", and that is how it should continue.

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