Of Presidents and Derelicts

Barack Obama is no fan of the Constitution. He has been known to criticize it for its focus on limiting government, for telling governments what they can and cannot do. He prefers a Constitution that focuses more on telling governments what they should do, at least telling governments to do what he would like, including seeing to the “redistribution of wealth,” or what he calls elsewhere “redistributive change.”

Of course, that is a mischaracterization. Not a mischaracterization of Obama’s views but of what the Constitution says. It does limit government, but it also gives government specific responsibilities and the power to exercise those responsibilities. Article I, Section 8 provides a very clear list of the federal government’s duties. It is noteworthy that those enumerated responsibilities and powers are in the Article that establishes the Congress. The list includes such things as providing for the common defense, borrowing and paying government debts, regulating foreign and interstate commerce, establishing standards for weights and measures, and so forth.

There are plenty of other provisions that limit the powers of the government and how it operates. The Constitution is a balance of governmental duties within a structure intended carefully to limit the government. As a limited government our Republic has prospered. It has struggled either when its duties were neglected (as in the days of President Buchanan, who did nothing while he watched state after state rebel from the Union) or when the limitations have been eroded (as we have witnessed through much of the twentieth century and in the first 14 years of the twenty-first).

The President has specific powers and duties, too, nearly all of which are carefully linked with the role of the Congress. For example, while the President does not make the laws—Article I, Section 1 gives “All legislative Powers” exclusively to the Congress—the President is authorized to make proposals to Congress and has the authority to veto legislation (but not change it) that Congress has approved. Once an act of Congress becomes law, the President then has the explicit obligation to, “take Care that the Laws be fully executed” (Article II, Section 3).

Note the words, “fully executed”. The President takes an oath to fulfill those duties, and nowhere in oath or Constitution is the President authorized to execute the laws only as much as he likes or agrees with them. Once something has become a law, the President may not set aside this or that part of the law or decide that he will only enforce the law so far. His obligation is to take Care that the laws are fully executed.

Average Americans may not like this or that provision of law, but we are not at liberty to ignore any law that applies to us just because we do not like it. The President is not exempt from that common responsibility of all citizens, either. As the chief government executive, who sought to hold his high office of public responsibility, he is even more obligated not only to obey the laws but to execute them, fully. The President may not make the laws, he may not amend the laws, he may not change the laws, and he may not disregard the laws. His duty is to execute the laws, and when he does not he is derelict in his duties.

This is all in accordance with the important division of labor, the separation of powers that the Founders put into the very structure of the Constitution to combat the tendency of all humans to abuse power once it comes into their hands. By dividing the power of government among three separate but coequal branches, dividing legislative power even further between House and Senate, and yet again separating government power between federal and state governments, the Founders went to clear and elaborate lengths to create checks and balances.

Under the American system of government no branch, no person, no group of people in government, are to be able to do very much on their own without getting the other elements of government to go along. Where they are not able to agree, where there is no consensus, for the safety of our freedoms government is prevented by constitutional law from moving forward unless substantial consensus among the different branches can be reached. Those checks and balances again and again, throughout the more than two centuries of our Constitution, have forced the very human people in government to revisit their differences and come to terms with one another, however much they may disagree and be disagreeable. There is safety for you and me in that. And it helps keep our Union together, repeatedly forcing our leaders (and the parts of the nation that they represent and whose authority they exercise) to work with one another, like it or not.

Recently, President Obama has expressed impatience with the Constitution’s checks and balances. After all, he personally, in and of himself, embodies an entire branch of government. The other branches, Congress and the courts, have many different people with a messy variety of ideas. President Obama complains that Congress cannot decide what it wants to do as quickly as he can. In his view, why wait?

By design, Congress of course has something of a multiple personality. It is a gathering of elected representatives, reflecting the diversity of views among the people of the nation. Appropriately, it takes time to build a consensus that accommodates those views, as it should. But President Obama cannot wait. He sees the need to accommodate no ideas other than his own. He has decided that on this issue or that—today it is immigration laws—there is a limit, defined by himself, as to how much time Congress can take to consider things. When time is up, he, the executive branch, will take the matter into his own hands, and pretend to the authority to do it.

His tool of choice today is to abjure his duty to execute the laws fully and instead to execute them partially, just to the extent and manner that suit his own desires, as he engages in another round of redistributive change. That he is endeavoring to violate rather than execute our national, founding law, and his constitutional oath of office, apparently does not trouble him. It is the Constitution itself that troubles him.

But from where does he think he gets his authority to do anything. When he breaks the Constitution, does he not break his very authority to act in the office that the Constitution created?

Of Duty and Law

The concept of duty is worthy of careful consideration, particularly in its relationship to law. You genuinely subject yourself to law only after you consider it a duty to observe the law. This would also seem to involve an element of humility. When you humble yourself enough to recognize a duty to the law, the law then has force and operates within you (as contrasted with operating upon you).

Through the operation of duty the law becomes internalized. No police force or compulsion of any kind is then required. This is how true law, law in harmony with eternal justice, has a transforming effect, changing you for the better. Through continued growth in this process, of employing duty to internalize good law, you can actually “become” the law, even as Christ meant when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis added).

One who feels no duty to a law, but observes it only because of the coercion attached to it—from the fear of the consequences of breaking the law—has not yet submitted himself to the law. He observes the law only because it is enforced; when the enforcement is removed and no longer binds him to the law, he will do as he pleases regardless of the law’s mandates. Without a sense of duty to obey the law, he remains a law unto himself, subjecting himself when necessary to a greater force but not to the law.

Without this sense of duty, a system of laws becomes a competition of wills, of competing forces. It is not a system of rights and duties. Thus, the erosion of the sense of duty also erodes the moral and transforming force of law, and it erodes rights, that find their protection in law. Civilization is replaced with gangs and brutality.

(First published August 21, 2008)