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Monday, October 18, 2010

A Spending-Limit Amendment

In National Affairs, Jeffrey Anderson writes:

In the eyes of America's founders, unlimited government was a recipe for tyranny. It was with this in mind that they designed a series of carefully planned restraints for our republic, establishing a government with powers that are specifically enumerated, and explicitly granted by the people. Indeed, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison stressed that the new Constitution would not be the "same doctrine" of the "old world" — namely, "that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people" — simply "revived in the new, in another shape." Rather, Madison promised, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined."

But Madison's expectations about the self-containing nature of America's new government proved a bit too optimistic. In the two centuries since, the size and scope of the federal government have sporadically, but steadily, expanded. And in the past few years, a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, a $787 billion economic-stimulus package, and the passage of a major health-care overhaul — which aims to inaugurate a trillion-dollar-plus entitlement and dramatically reshape the relationship between individuals and the state — have brought the tension over federal spending to a head. Tea Party protests have sprung up across the country; their participants object primarily to the centralization of power in Washington at the expense of individual liberty, and to the profligacy of Congress at the expense of the nation's future solvency. To a degree not seen in many decades, Americans appear determined to provide a correction to the expansion of federal power.

In Madison's defense, however, this expansion has not been a product of the Constitution as written and ratified, but rather of changes to it, through rulings and amendments. These include the Supreme Court's expansive reading of the power to regulate interstate commerce, its severing of the power to tax from Congress's other enumerated powers, its narrow reading of the Tenth Amendment's reservation of powers to the states or the people, and, above all, the addition of the 16th Amendment, granting the federal government essentially unlimited power to tax Americans' income. All are developments that have inflated federal power well beyond the limits originally established by the Constitution.

Yet this warping of the framers' intent is less a cause for alarm than for action. If nothing else, the growth of the state clarifies our responsibilities as citizens. After all, the Constitution didn't emerge from the clouds: It was written by flesh-and-blood Americans, in response to the events and challenges of their day. And it includes an amendment provision allowing later generations to adapt the document to the events and challenges of our own times. Today, a correction is in order — and our founders wisely furnished us with the means to provide it.

The correction, he says, would consist of a constitutional amendment to limit spending growth. More here.