By Andrew P. Napolitano ∙ The Wall Street Journal & LewRockwell.com ∙ October 29, 2008*
In a radio interview in 2001, then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama noted — somewhat ruefully — that the same Supreme Court that ordered political and educational equality in the 1960s and 1970s did not bring about economic equality as well. Although Mr. Obama said he could come up with arguments for the constitutionality of such action, the plain meaning of the Constitution quite obviously prohibits it.
Mr. Obama is hardly alone in his expansive view of legitimate government. During the past month, Sen. John McCain (who, like Sen. Obama, voted in favor of the $700 billion bank bailout) has been advocating that $300 billion be spent to pay the monthly mortgage payments of those in danger of foreclosure. The federal government is legally powerless to do that, as well.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt first proposed legislation that authorized the secretary of agriculture to engage in Soviet-style central planning — a program so rigid that it regulated how much wheat a homeowner could grow for his own family's consumption — he rejected arguments of unconstitutionality. He proclaimed that the Constitution was "quaint" and written in the "horse and buggy era," and predicted the public and the courts would agree with him.
Remember that FDR had taken — and either Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain will soon take — the oath to uphold that old-fashioned document, the one from which all presidential powers come.
Unfortunately, these presidential attitudes about the Constitution are par for the course. Beginning with John Adams, and proceeding to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush, Congress has enacted and the president has signed laws that criminalized political speech, suspended habeas corpus, compelled support for war, forbade freedom of contract, allowed the government to spy on Americans without a search warrant, and used taxpayer dollars to shore up failing private banks.
All of this legislation — merely tips of an unconstitutional Big Government iceberg — is so obviously in conflict with the plain words of the Constitution that one wonders how Congress gets away with it.
In virtually every generation and during virtually every presidency (Jefferson, Jackson and Cleveland are exceptions that come to mind) the popular branches of government have expanded their power. The air you breathe, the water you drink, the size of your toilet tank, the water pressure in your shower, the words you can speak under oath and in private, how your physician treats your illness, what your children study in grade school, how fast you can drive your car, and what you can drink before you drive it are all regulated by federal law. Congress has enacted over 4,000 federal crimes and written or authorized over one million pages of laws and regulations. Worse, we are expected by law to understand all of it.
The truth is that the Constitution grants Congress 17 specific (or "delegated") powers. And it commands in the Ninth and 10th Amendments that the powers not articulated and thus not delegated by the Constitution to Congress be reserved to the states and the people.
What's more, Congress can only use its delegated powers to legislate for the general welfare, meaning it cannot spend tax dollars on individuals or selected entities, but only for all of us. That is, it must spend in such a manner — a post office, a military installation, a courthouse, for example — that directly enhances everyone's welfare within the 17 delegated areas of congressional authority.
And Congress cannot deny the equal protection of the laws. Thus, it must treat similarly situated persons or entities in a similar manner. It cannot write laws that favor its political friends and burden its political enemies.
There is no power in the Constitution for the federal government to enter the marketplace since, when it does, it will favor itself over its competition. The Contracts Clause (the states cannot interfere with private contracts, like mortgages), the Takings Clause (no government can take away property, like real estate or shares of stock, without paying a fair market value for it and putting it to a public use), and the Due Process Clause (no government can take away a right or obligation, like collecting or paying a debt, or enforcing a contract, without a fair trial) together mandate a free market, regulated only to keep it fair and competitive.
It is clear that the Framers wrote a Constitution as a result of which contracts would be enforced, risk would be real, choices would be free and have consequences, and private property would be sacrosanct.
The $700 billion bailout of large banks that Congress recently enacted runs afoul of virtually all these constitutional principles. It directly benefits a few, not everyone. We already know that the favored banks that received cash from taxpayers have used it to retire their own debt. It is private welfare. It violates the principle of equal protection: Why help Bank of America and not Lehman Brothers? It permits federal ownership of assets or debt that puts the government at odds with others in the free market. It permits the government to tilt the playing field to favor its patrons (like J.P. Morgan Chase, in which it has invested taxpayer dollars) and to disfavor those who compete with its patrons (like the perfectly lawful hedge funds which will not have the taxpayers relieve their debts).
Perhaps the only public agreement that Jefferson and Hamilton had about the Constitution was that the federal Treasury would be raided and the free market would expire if the Treasury became a public trough. If it does, the voters will send to Congress those whom they expect will fleece the Treasury for them. That's why the Founders wrote such strict legislating and spending limitations into the Constitution.
Everyone in government takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. But few do so. Do the people we send to the federal government recognize any limits today on Congress's power to legislate? The answer is: Yes, their own perception of whatever they can get away with.
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Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel, and the author of A Nation of Sheep, The Constitution in Exile and Constitutional Chaos: What Happens When the Government Breaks Its Own Laws.
Copyright © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
* Edited for style. Title, sub, body: WSJ, 10∙29. Images, links, bio, copyright notice: LRC, 11∙3.