Contracts come in many forms and serve many purposes. They may be as informal and ephemeral as the understanding between barber and customer that the barber will cut the customer’s hair and the customer will pay the barber a certain amount of money for the haircut. They may be as solemn and hopefully eternal as marriage vows.
In the public realm there is no more solemn contract than the Constitution of the United States. But the great national crises of the Twentieth Century — especially the Depression and World War II — fostered the habit of giving illegitimate power to the federal government. Thus the constitutional contract and the pillars of the Constitution — the States and citizenry — have been undermined.
The immense, illegitimate power that has accrued to the federal government cannot be found in the Constitution. It arises from the cumulative effect of generations of laws, regulations, and court rulings — each ostensibly well-meant by its perpetrators.
The habit of recourse to the federal government has become a destructive cycle of dependency. Elected representatives and non-elected elites have vested unwarranted power in the federal government to deal with problems “we” face — problems the federal government cannot, for the most part, begin to solve and which it demonstrably fails to solve many more times than not. The conditioned response to failure has been to cede more power (and money) to the federal government in the false hope that the next increment will get the job done.
There has been much bold talk in recent times about making the federal government smaller and devolving federal power to the States. The bottom line is that the executive branch still regulates beyond its constitutional license, Congress still passes laws that give unwarranted power to the federal government, and federal spending still consumes about the same fraction of economic output that it did two decades ago.
To break out of this cycle of addiction, we must restore the constitutional contract and thus enable the States and citizens — especially citizens — to realize their economic, social, and spiritual potential.
The Constitutional Contract, Its Reach, and Its Principles
The Constitution is a contract between the States. In it, the States cede certain powers to a government of the united States, created by the States on behalf of the States and their citizens. Thus, for example, in Section 10 of Article I, the States voluntarily deny themselves certain powers that in Section 9 they vest in Congress — creation of money, regulation of trade among the States and between the States and other nations, conduct of foreign relations, and conduct of war.
The Preamble lists the States’ reasons for entering into the constitutional contract, which are “…to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity….” These are ends desired, not outcomes promised.
To further these ends, the Constitution establishes a government of the united States, and authorizes it to enact, execute, and adjudicate laws within a delimited sphere of authority. The Constitution not only delimits the federal government’s authority but also diffuses it by dividing it among the federal government’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
The Framers knew what we are now only re-learning: A government is a power-hungry beast — even a representative government. More power in the hands of government means less power for individuals. Individuals are better off when they control their own lives than when government, directly or indirectly, controls their lives for them.
Thus the limited scope of the constitutional contract provides for:
• primacy of the federal Constitution and of constitutional laws over those of the States (This primacy applies only within the limited sphere of authority that the Constitution grants to the federal government. The federal government is not, and was not intended to be, a national government that supersedes the States.)
• collective obligations of the States, as the united States, and individual obligations of the States to each other
• structure of the federal government — the three branches, elections and appointments to their offices, and basic legislative procedures
• powers of the three branches
• division of powers between the States and federal government
• rights and privileges of citizens
• a process for amending the Constitution.
The principles embodied in the details of the contract are few and simple:
• The Constitution and constitutional laws are the supreme law of the land, within the clearly delimited scope of the Constitution.
• The federal government has no powers other than those provided by the Constitution.
• The rights of citizens include not only those rights specified in the Constitution but also any unspecified rights that do not conflict with powers expressly granted the federal government or reserved by the States in the creation of the federal government.
The Limits of Federal Power
The Constitution may be the “supreme law of the land” (Article VI), but as the ardent federalist Alexander Hamilton explained, the Constitution “expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution…[Federalist number 33].”
Thus the authority of the federal government — the government formed by the united States — enables the States to pursue common objectives. But that authority is limited so that it does not usurp the authority of States or the rights of citizens.
Moreover, the “checks and balances” in the Constitution limit the federal government’s ability to act, even within its sphere of authority. In the legislative branch neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate can pass a law unilaterally. In his sole constitutional role — as head of the executive branch — the President of the United States must, with specified exceptions, sign acts of Congress before they become law, and may veto acts of Congress — which may, in turn, override his vetoes. From its position atop the judicial branch, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide cases “arising under” (within the scope of) the Constitution, not to change the Constitution without benefit of convention or amendment.
The Constitution itself defines the sphere of authority of the federal government and balances that authority against the authority of the States and the rights of citizens. Although the Constitution specifies certain powers of the federal executive and judiciary (e.g., commanding the armed forces and judging cases arising under the Constitution), federal power rests squarely and solely upon the legislative authority of Congress, as defined in Article I, Sections 8, 9, and 10. The intentionally limited scope of federal authority is underscored by Amendments IX and X; to repeat:
The rights of citizens include not only those rights specified in the Constitution but also any unspecified rights that do not conflict with powers expressly granted the federal government or reserved by the States in the creation of the federal government.
The Rise of Unconstitutional Laws and Regulations
The generations of laws and regulations that have seized the powers and rights of States and citizens are, to put it plainly, unconstitutional. Most such laws and regulations seem to rest on these foundations:
• the phrase “promote the general welfare” in the Preamble. This was a desired result of the adoption of the Constitution, not an edict to redistribute income and wealth.
• the power of Congress “to regulate commerce…among the several states [Article I, Section 8].” This power was meant to prevent the States from restricting or distorting the terms of trade across their borders, not to enable the federal government to dictate what is traded, how it is made, or how businesses operate.
• the authority of Congress “[t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof [Article I, Section 8].” The words “necessary and proper” have been wrenched out of their context and used to turn the meaning of this clause upside down. It was meant to limit Congress to the enactment of constitutional legislation, not to give it unlimited legislative authority.
• the “equal protection” clause of Amendment XIV: “…nor shall any State…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Amendment XIV was meant to secure the legal equality of those former slaves whose freedom had been secured by Amendment XIII. Amendment XIV became, instead, the basis for Supreme Court decisions and federal laws and regulations that have given special “rights” to specific, “protected” groups by curtailing the constitutional rights of the many who cannot claim affiliation with one or another of the “protected” groups. As the proponents of such groups might ask, is it fair?
Restoring the Constitutional Contract
The constitutional contract charges the federal government with keeping peace among the States, ensuring uniformity in the rules of inter-State and international commerce, facing the world with a single foreign policy and a national armed force, and assuring the even-handed application of the Constitution and of constitutional laws. That is all.
It is clear that the contract has been breached. Only by restoring it and reversing generations of federal encroachment on the rights and powers of the States and people can we “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
In a future post I will link to a restored constitutional contract, one that would undo the damage that has been done to the Framers’ great work.