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)

Of Closed Governments and Coming Together

Battered and bruised and stretched and torn, our Constitution still has life in it. One of its central principles is that no one person can do much by himself in Washington, for good or ill. We are watching that play out in this year’s appropriations process. We see that it is impossible for one man, the President, to make a new law. It is similarly impossible for one House of Congress, whether Senate or House of Representatives, to do so alone.

Under the Constitution, all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives, where they are given their initial shape and substance. Next, the Senate must concur or amend. If the Senate chooses to amend, the bill goes back to the House, which can either agree to the Senate amendment, disagree, or disagree with a further amendment. If there is disagreement, representatives from House and Senate can meet to resolve those differences. If they do and succeed, then each House, first one and then the other, passes the bill, after which it is sent on to the President.

It is still not a new law. According to the Constitution, the President may not amend the bill that has passed both Houses of the Congress. He can choose to sign it, making it a law. It does not become a law unless he does. He can choose to veto it. In the latter case it goes back to the Congress, where it can only become law if both Houses override the President’s veto.

I lay this process out in some detail, because to listen to the institutional media and most of the pundits you might think that they have all forgotten, or never learned, how the constitutional process of making laws works. It is not an easy process. In fact it was meant to be difficult. Some seem to wish it were easy, at least for enacting the policies that they favor. They would wish to make one or more constitutional parties to law making redundant and of no separate account or purpose other than to do the will of their favorite other. They should, instead, take comfort that it is easier to defeat policies that they oppose.

The genius of the Constitution for making laws is that it requires three separate parties of people, sometimes with very different views, to come together to make anything a law. The Founders made it difficult because they were not very fond of new laws. They knew that an abundance of laws could mean a scarcity of freedom. And so it is today, but it has taken over 200 years to build up the awesome pile of laws that regulate so much of our lives, and yet it still is harder to make a new law than many would wish.

Our Constitution requires that a lot of people have to work together to make a new law. When they do not, nothing happens. That is why much of the federal government has run out of money and has “shut down.” A new law is needed to appropriate the money for these shuttered parts of the federal government to open.

They will continue to be without operating money until the elected representatives in the House and Senate and the President work together to make a new law. The Constitution forces them to work together. Nothing will happen until they do, whether that takes a day, a week, or longer. The Constitution requires sufficient cooperation for law making. For either House, or Senate, or President to be able to make laws without the other would impose the tyranny of one set of views over the rest. The Constitution will not allow that. The Constitution forces a meeting of the minds, either by persuasion or by compromise, or in practice some of both.

The Constitution is a beautiful thing. I rejoice in it. I can be patient for a while as it does its work and forces our elected leaders to come together. The issue is not keeping parks open. The issue is preserving our freedom and our society. The Constitution still has some power to do that.

(First published October 1, 2013)

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