Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of War and Freedom

Independence Day 2013 had perhaps a more than usual significance for our national holiday. On that day, 150 years before, the Army of the Potomac waited on the hills and ridges south of Gettysburg for a rebel assault that did not come. Though General Meade and his officers and soldiers were unaware of it that morning, the rebel army was beaten, after three fruitless days of attacking the soldiers of the United States to clear a path to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself. Instead, Robert E. Lee was engaged on July 4, 1863, in plans to extricate what was left of his army from Pennsylvania and get it across the Potomac and into Virginia before it could be destroyed.

On that same day a thousand miles to the southeast, the rebel army in Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to the U.S. Army and General U.S. Grant. It was strategically an even more important victory. The fall of that rebel stronghold would lead to the free navigation of the entire Mississippi River, from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, for all shipping loyal to the United States, and it divided the rebel Confederacy in two.
As Grant reflected later in his Memoirs,

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after. (Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p.297)

Some who are not friends of the United States Constitution make the false claim that the War of the Rebellion was clear evidence that the Constitution was hopelessly flawed, that the war revealed the weakness of the American government rather than its strength. Such critics little understand history or what a rare thing it is for nations—or rather the people of nations—to learn to be willing to settle issues of life, death, and livelihood by the casting of ballots. It is an acquired discipline.

Consider how very few democracies or republics have been established and accepted by the populace without the people being convinced by bloody war and rebellion that deciding issues by votes and law is superior to trying them by force. England had many civil wars and rebellions on its way to rule by parliaments instead of kings. France, too, went through several revolutions before its current Fifth Republic achieved political stability. The Weimar Republic of Germany teetered for some fifteen years until it descended into the Third Reich, and only upon ruins was a stable federal republic built. Japan at last settled for meaningful republican government after its military dictatorship completely prostrated the nation in World War II. Republican government was only months old when the Bolsheviks replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the verdict is not yet in as to whether the Russian nation has embraced free republican government even now. Similar stories can be told all across the globe, about China, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, and many other lands that through trauma and struggle came today to be governed by leaders chosen by the people limited in their authority by viable constitutions.

But if the American War of the Rebellion demonstrated the challenges to constitutional government in the first one hundred years of the Republic, it also showed its strength. That can be illustrated by what its critics consider its most damning flaw, for they denounce the document for enshrining human chattel slavery instead of abolishing it. In this they are entirely wrong. The Constitution took the thirteen new American states as they were in the late eighteenth century and brought them into a society of constitutional freedom incompatible with slavery, where the operations of that Constitution would sooner or later bring slavery to an end.

It is true that there are provisions in the Constitution as adopted in 1787 that recognized slavery. That was the price for bringing the slave-holding states into the Union within the structure of the Constitution. That very Constitution, however, made it impossible for slavery in the United States to endure. Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, war waged by the people under that very Constitution was abolishing legal slavery in America. Perhaps there was a time when it might have ended peacefully, but peacefully or not, slavery in the United States had to end.

As Abraham Lincoln predicted at the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” I believe that Lincoln knew which would triumph, but I do not know that he suspected that he would be the constitutional officer that would see that the Union was not dissolved and that all of the United States would become free.

By the end of 1860, slaveholders knew that they could not retain slavery if they stayed under the Constitution. Sooner or later, the votes would be cast to end the practice. The slaveholders chose to rebel and get out from under the Constitution before its principles of human freedom inexorably overcame them. But once under the Constitution, it was too late to leave. Under the organization of the Constitution, the armies of the Republic were organized and put down the rebellion and slavery, holding congresses and conducting elections along the way.

The War of the Rebellion did not free the land from enemies of freedom and constitutional law. Those who would impose their will on their neighbors remain with us today. Their freedom is protected by the Constitution. But the Constitution has ever stood in the way of their plans to subjugate their fellows, and it will continue to do so as long as it is upheld. Hence the relentless efforts to undermine it, to claim it a flawed document, or pronounce it a “living document,” changeable at the whim of politicians and judges who are allowed to raise their own will above its meaning. Our devotion to that Constitution, if we are to remain free, cannot be any less than that of those who fought at Gettysburg and other battles of freedom. As we remember them, it is our turn to show “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”.

(First published July 11, 2013)

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)

Of Global Poverty and Washington’s Struggles

It was tough getting out of Washington this evening.  You might suppose that with the partial shut down of the federal government, traffic in Washington would be on the light side.  I have not seen much evidence of it on the streets of the city or in the Washington suburbs.  I know that many, many people must be out of work, because the establishment media keep saying so, television and radio.

I do not refer, however, to experiencing the normal evening outbound Washington traffic.  Traffic was unusually heavy today, especially on 19th Street, N.W., south of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The world financial diplomats are back in town to attend fancy parties in the cause of poverty.  For several blocks the lanes were clogged, nose to tail, with their black limousines.  The global party goers gather in D.C. each October two out of every three years (they take one year off to congregate somewhere else for variety).  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are holding their annual meetings as they have for going on 7 decades.

Inching along 19th Street, which is Main Street for the World Bank and the IMF (they have bought up nearly all of the Washington real estate between the White House complex and George Washington University), I was able to have a long, good study of a series of monster posters draping the north side of one of the World Bank office buildings, posters reaching no less than eight stories high, proclaiming the simple bold motto, “End Poverty.”  That is a good idea, probably the product of a high level committee of experts tasked with developing a theme for the Annual Meetings.  It conveys a sense of purpose, a reach for meaning.  The professional poverty bureaucrats have done little to end global poverty, but they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain it—at least judging by the results.

In all fairness, perhaps the annual World Bank/IMF festivities help to fight poverty in the Capital Region.  Washington, D.C., and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs are already thriving from the Administration’s economic stimulus program.  They have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, with the exception of the pockets where the energy fracking revolution is booming.  Nevertheless, at least for a while Washington is drawing money from the rest of the World as it does every day from the rest of the United States.

Focusing on ending poverty is a good idea, and there are ways to do it.  Undoubtedly, much of the discussion, however, in the IMF and World Bank meetings this week has focused on the budget and economic crisis in the United States.  “Dysfunctional” is surely a common word used in conversation by the visiting diplomats in the salons to describe the condition of the U.S. Government, since that is the label regularly applied by the establishment media talking heads, and it would resonate.  The vast majority of the financial officials attending come from nations where government is much more efficient.  Their economies may be dysfunctional, but their governments are models of efficiency.  What the big guy in the big office in the big house wants he gets.

The American system is a lot messier.  The big guy in the room without corners in the big White House does not seem to be getting what he wants, at least not since the 2010 election.  After that election that put a majority of opposition Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, and reelected them in 2012, he has declared his intention to govern without Congress.

The last couple of weeks have brought home to the President that he cannot quite do without Congress.  Congress still has some role, albeit one greatly diminished from that extended to it by the Constitution.  It turns out that the “government shutdown” actually has shut down no more than 17% of Federal Government operations; 83% continues to pump along spending money with no attention by Congress needed.

The chief executive is trying to magnify that 17% by making its absence as painful as possible, the rest of us the insect absorbing the sun’s rays under the focus of the glass in the President’s hand.  The executive hope is that public pressure will force the Congress to surrender what remains of its authority and agree to whatever the President demands, backing away from asserting any policy role of its own.  Just give the President a clean bill to keep doing what he has been doing, and move along.

Congress is not making that easy, passing bill after bill to open or ameliorate this or that hardship.  The President has rejected nearly every effort.  Of course, that is odd if you buy the rhetoric from the White House that the Congress has taken hostages.  Working with that metaphor, I know of no hostage examples where anyone having the interests of the hostages at heart would object to release of any one of them.  Who would send the released hostages back to their captors and say, “we will receive no freed hostages until you free them all”?  Yet that is the White House position.  Who is hurt by that?

You would not hear such questioning from the establishment media.  They are doing their best to hide the fact that what we are experiencing is a constitutional crisis, a battle that our Founders anticipated, which is why they created a structure of shared power that requires cooperation of all branches and domination by none.  The media are happy demeaning the struggle as a sporting event with winners and losers, and time clocks, and sports commentators, and favorite teams.

They miss the central point.  We cannot suffer to have any team “win”, and we are not spectators at a stadium.  Our freedom is at stake.  The design of the Constitution is that there can be little governing without all three branches being involved, the whole nation and its many parts represented.  Today we are engaged in a great struggle testing whether that structure of government, limited to prevent tyranny by either the President, the Congress, or the Courts, can endure.  So far it has.  The partial government shut down is the evidence.  Were that to end by either one branch or the other capitulating—rather than House, Senate, and President coming together—it is our freedom that would suffer.  There would remain much less check on the arbitrary and capricious actions of the victor.

Many of the elite financial diplomats at the World Bank/IMF meetings would understand that result and feel right at home.  American government, for 200 years a mystery to the rest of the world, would then become much more understandable and familiar to them.

Of the Constitution and the States

It must be the least employed part of the Constitution. In fact, “never used” may be a better description. I am not sure but that it may be the one part of the Constitution not only never used but never really tried.

I draw your attention to Article V, which offers procedures for amending the Constitution. Article V has been successfully invoked 27 times–25 or 26 times if you reconcile the count for the fact that the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, the prohibition of intoxicating liquors.

So why do I refer to Article V if it has been used on more than two dozen occasions? I have in mind an important but neglected part of Article V. Article V provides two methods for amending the Constitution. Only one method has been used. We might call that the Washington Method, since it relies upon the Federal Government to propose amendments and send them to the States. The other, unused method I would call the State Method, as it relies upon the State legislatures to initiate the amendment process.

Article V is short. Here is the text in full:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate. (Emphasis added)

Constitutions are foundational documents and so should not be changed any more often than you would consider changing the foundation of your house. Change the foundation and a lot of other things change, too, and if you are not careful you can weaken the whole structure. But the Founders of the nation knew that they were not omniscient and that the need for adjustments or even corrections to the basic plan of the government would surely become obvious over time.

For example, the original process for counting electoral votes for President and Vice President almost put Aaron Burr in the White House instead of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Jefferson was the candidate for President, Burr the running mate, and both received the same number of electoral votes, but the electoral college ballot under the Constitution did not distinguish between President and Vice President. The two were tied, and Aaron Burr got the notion that maybe he should be President instead of Jefferson. The House of Representatives had to sort it out. Afterwards, this flaw in the Constitution was corrected by the Twelfth Amendment.

The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were made almost immediately and were demanded by several states as essential conditions for their ratification of the Constitution itself. We could very appropriately consider those ten amendments as part of the original Constitution since it would not likely have been ratified without their promised addition. In that view, the Constitution has subsequently been amended little more than a dozen times in over two centuries.

It is also worth noting that Congress has proposed amendments that the States have subsequently and appropriately turned down. One such proposed amendment that never got past the States was approved by Congress in 1861, denying Congress the power to interfere with slavery. The Constitution does not, however, limit the power of the States to only considering amendments that come out of Washington. It provides to the States the power to initiate amendments of their own.

Mark Levin, in his recent book, The Liberty Amendments, argues that it is important for the States to exercise that authority. He offers some suggestions for amendments that the States might consider, designed to restore the balance between Washington and the States that the Founders envisioned when creating our federal system.

It is a sign of how distorted things have become that using the word “federal” today almost always leads one to think of the government in Washington. Yet our federal system was designed specifically to preserve State authority and limit the power of the national government. Levin argues that those limits have been dangerously eroded, especially over the last century.

Consider the many aspects of our daily lives that are determined one way or another by Washington laws and regulations rather than by the States whose representatives are closer to the people whom they govern. The list would include the fixtures in our bathrooms, the design of our cars, the food offered to children in school lunch rooms, the subjects that they are taught, the products and services offered by banks, and now the healthcare that we can receive.

A major consequence of the problem is that the power appetite of Washington has taken on more than it can handle and is seriously threatening the health of the nation. Regardless of which parties are in power or whether power is divided, Washington is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. But the professional politicians in Washington will not let go of the power that they have taken from the States, even as they sink under the weight.

What has tied Washington up in knots this fall? It is conflict over Obamacare. Would that even be a problem if healthcare were left to the States to regulate? Congress is having trouble passing a farm bill because of apparently unbridgeable differences over food stamps. Would Washington be stuck in the mud—and at the same time affecting all the rest of the nation—if farm and nutrition policies remained in State hands? At the same time, many States are facing major budget problems coming to grips with paying for programs forced on them by the national government.

The State Method for amending the Constitution was put into the Constitution specifically for the time when the national government was the problem and would be incapable of solving its own problems. Surely that time has come. Washington has gotten tied up in a Gordian knot of its own devising. The wise Founders of the nation apparently knew that things could come to this. It is time for the States to exercise their constitutional power to cut the knot.

(First published September 22, 2013)