Today is day nine of the government shutdown and currently there is little optimism in Washington that an agreement will be reached to end the stalemate. While many are focusing on the unpopularity of ObamaCare, or as the White House claims, Republicans are using the budget to hold funding for the new health care law hostage; however there is an even more important factor that requires our attention: Lawmakers need to get control of our budget.
In The Washington Post, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is calling for bipartisan negotiations. Republican Congressman and former Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan called for a grand bipartisan bargain in The Wall Street Journal yesterday.
In his op-ed, Cantor quotes James Madison on divided power in Federalist No. 48. In Federalist No. 58 Madison offers these thoughts,
The House of Representatives can not only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of Government. They, in a word, hold the purse; that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the People gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the Government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon, with which any Constitution can arm the immediate Representatives of the People, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.
According to James Madison, when lawmakers exempt themselves from the legislation they pass, “The people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Over 1,200 organizations and companies have already secured ObamaCare waivers. However, currently making big headlines is a deal worked out by the President and Congress that exempts congressional members and staff from the full effect of the law. In actuality, lawmakers had to go back and secure the hefty subsidies for Congress and staff as that was set to end when the health insurance exchanges are implemented on January 1, 2014. The Wall Street Journal does a good job of covering the details of the exemption and stressing the point once again that Washington lawmakers voted on and passed a bill they didn’t bother to examine. The lack of oversight and vetting of the bill has led to the subverting of the legislative branch, as the executive branch has been rewriting portions of the law to make it even more favorable to Washington.
Arguing in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Federalist #57, James Madison made this argument:
I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.
If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.
Those are weighty words by Madison, but now they point not to the optimism of a new country trying to secure a lasting liberty, but the kind of despotism that should be feared by the people.
Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America. Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda. But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with. Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power. Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life. For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change. Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc. All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life? And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals. The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference. Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market. We already know how that story ends. And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.
It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are. Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place. The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit. The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries. As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.
At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address: