January 6 2011
Some on the left are mocking today's reading of the Constitution on the House floor as a political gimmick. While this is a largely symbolic act by the Republican House, it accompanies a series of more substantive new House rules that require lawmakers, for instance, to cite where the Constitution authorizes the bill they introduce.
Neither reading the Constitution nor initiating this new rule will by itself restore the limited government conceived of during the early republic. But it is an encouraging first step at a time when government - and specifically, the administrative state - has grown large, intrusive, and often invisible.
Today the administrative state - rooted in the Civil War and Reconstruction, developed during the Progressive era, firmly established through FDR's response to the Great Depression and expanded through Johnson's Great Society - has become a barrier to freedom and economic growth, as well as an affront to the original structure of our government. The Founders designed a strict delineation of authority and a separation and division of power in order to prevent the rise of an administrative state like the one we have today.
Huge, sprawling pieces of legislation like ObamaCare are hard to miss. But the bureaucracy of the federal government, made up of countless departments, agencies and commissions, wields tremendous power that often extends beyond the traditional boundaries of the executive branch and is too often unaccountable to the American public. (Consider, for instance, the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission regarding net neutrality, in which the FCC authorized extensive new regulations of broadband, wireless networks and the Internet without a clear constitutional authority.)
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, he was captivated by the noticeable absence of a national state and the general diffusion of power. The lack of administration was maintained through the structure of the government as well as a commitment to popular sovereignty. By recognizing sovereign power, in a written Constitution, as residing in the American people, and by bestowing delineated powers upon representatives at the state and national level, the Founders intended to compel government to act as and remain the servant of the people. In this way, American political culture and government were distinct from those in Europe, which held the people as subjects of a sovereign state.
This vital distinction between America and Europe has faded badly and needs attentive restoration. And the decision by Congress to seriously address the letter and spirit of the Constitution is an important first step in this process.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.