Tuesday, April 27, 2010
THE CONSTITUTION IS A COMPLICATED DOCUMENT?
Our local newsrag featured an article in which the constitution was put forth as a very complicated document by a political science professor. I thought, of course it's a complicated document, to one who makes his living interpreting politics and government for those of us with lesser intelligence than his. The constitution has always come off to me as a simple ideal that spawned an equally simple document. My reading tells me that the constitution performs one overarching task and that is to spell out the limited powers of a republican government. Nothing more, nothing less. The tenth amendment was added to allay the fears of the signers that the federal government would have unlimited power. They trusted state and local governments as entities of government far more than a distant federal government.
In class we are studying the founding period. We have taken a real in-depth look at the Articles of Confederation and the constitution. In both, a weak federal government was the aim and both documents were written that way. The Articles were scrapped because it lacked any real mechanism to carry out necessary government functions without the unanimous agreement of the thirteen states. While the constitution may have given the federal government more power, it was purposely harnessed with the inclusion of explicit, enumerated powers.
For example, as president James Madison was presented with a bill that allowed the federal government to distribute money to the states for the purpose of building roads and bridges, sometimes referred to as the American Plan. Two of the foremost proponents of this idea were Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. In 1816, Madison vetoed this legislation on the grounds that it was not constitutional for the federal government to use the taxpayer's money to fund projects in the states and that it unconstitutionally enlarged the powers of the federal government. In other words, it isn't in the enumerated powers. Simple concept, no? As I pointed out to my students, this is a powerful statement considering that Madison was the architect of the constitution.
Oddly enough, this issue was again in the forefront of the 1824 election, featuring Adams, Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William Crawford. Jackson won the popular vote, but he failed to get a majority of the electoral college which threw the election into the House of Representatives. Clay finished third and out of consideration. As the Speaker he threw his support behind Adams who won the election. Clay was appointed Secretary of State, in those days the steppingstone to the presidency, in what came to be known as the "Corrupt Bargain." The American Plan again died in congress and languished for many years as Jackson and his successors were not in favor of it. Madison had set a precedent that was obviously later kicked to the curb beginning in the progressive era. Here is another simple concept, money is power. Government as Santa has powerful consequences. FDR was a master of targeted government spending in order to buy votes. Therein lies the power of the majority. Somehow I think the unused funds in the "stimulus" package will be targeted to buy votes in the same fashion.
Through the years, the elastic clause and interstate commerce clause have been distorted beyond any recognition. My thought has always been that the courts and college law professors have sold Americans on the concept that the constitution is a complicated document. This a sort of self-serving stance in that it makes the legal community the go-to guys for we Americans who are uneducated enough to think that the constitution is not complicated.
Limited government. Simple ideal, simple document.