In the past few weeks, I have had numerous discussions with my friends and colleagues regarding the powers of the Federal Government and whether the Obama Administration was stepping beyond the boundaries of the powers given the Central Government in the Constitution. In fact, a number of people in my office had very little understanding of how American Federalism works. Just by coincidence my friend Michael Cochrane had recently written a column that explains it pretty clearly and lays out the arguments for smaller government. It also shows indirectly how far the Obama Administration is stretching the boundaries and destroying the Tenth Amendment. With the permission of Mr. Cochrane, I now present his article to you for review and comment.
Constitutional Government is Small Government
Michael F. Cochrane
I carry around with me a little copy of the Constitution of the United States. It’s easy to do, since it’s very small document. Even with all of the amendments, a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution (along with the Declaration of Independence) is only about sixty pages in length. It is the supreme law of the land, and contains within its various articles the framework and specified powers for the Federal government of this country. The reason this document is so small is because there are actually very few powers specifically given to the national government. For example, Article I, Section 8 lays out the powers of the Congress. They are limited to: taxation, providing for the common defense (raising an Army and Navy) and declaring war, regulating commerce with foreign nations, establishing naturalization laws, coining (and borrowing) money, establishing post offices and post roads, granting patents, and other various duties such as protecting the nation from piracy and calling up the militia. The tenth amendment states in its entirety, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”.
Why then, do we have a Federal government involved in every aspect of our daily life, from education, to health care, to dictating to private corporations? It’s a very long story, but we now live in a country where the unbridled power of the Federal government overshadows every aspect of government. Is this what the founders of our nation envisioned? We have become so used to the influence of Washington in our everyday lives that we take it for granted. But the Constitution does not authorize the kind of power our national government has appropriated for itself.
I’ve frequently asked myself what our country would be like if we actually had a Federal government that existed within the proscriptions of the Constitution. Would we be able to function? Wouldn’t many things just not get done? What is the role of the Federal government, the governments of the various States, local municipalities, and the private sector in providing the necessary services we need to have a functional and thriving society? I’ll try to walk through a few examples of areas where both government and the private sector are involved and do a thought experiment about what “small government” might look like.
Transportation. We have a system of Federal highways that culminated with the Interstate highway system that was essentially completed in the 1960s. Would we have been able to build such a system without Federal tax money or incentives? I suspect that such a system could have been suggested and planned at the Federal level, but the administration of its construction could clearly have been carried out with the States raising the revenue and overseeing the construction. The only real role for the Federal government (according to the Constitution) would be to regulate the commerce those roads carried between the States.
Education. We have a long history and tradition of local schools in this country; public schools financed by local taxes. The role of the Federal government in education of our nation’s youth is nowhere authorized in the Constitution. Unfortunately, the selective granting of Federal money to States and localities to support education has encouraged them to depend on the Federal government and look to it for revenue. It also makes it much easier for the Federal government to dictate to the States in areas of regulation of schools.
Social Welfare. It began with the passage of the Social Security act in the 1930s, but has grown to include Medicare, Medicaid, and Aid to Families With Dependent Children, commonly known as “welfare”. What was viewed initially as a step toward providing a minimum level of financial security to those unable to work either through old age or disability has become a huge system of Federal taxes that find their way into the general revenue fund and have not kept pace with the changing demographics of the nation. It can be argued that welfare programs have actually encouraged the breakup of families, when women are compensated by the Federal government for raising children out of wedlock. The current push to “reform” health care by setting up a so-called “public” insurance option and then mandating that all Americans purchase it or be guilty of breaking the law will only exacerbate the problem, raising Federal taxes and further limiting the ability of the States and the private sector to provide a vital marketplace for medical treatment and catastrophic medical insurance coverage.
The only constitutionally authorized Federal agency still providing services is the U.S. Postal Service. But do we even need a Federal Post Office? Why can’t FedEx, UPS, or any number of other private delivery companies bid on regional postal contracts for the delivery of mail? Could we eliminate the Department of Education? What would be the effect on our schools? I suspect it would not be negative. One might argue that there are Federal agencies, the elimination of which could be detrimental to the welfare and safety of the nation. The Federal Aviation Administration comes to mind. But I think it is a worthwhile exercise to systematically work one’s way through the Federal bureaucracy and analyze the degree to which an agency’s function is either 1) necessary, 2) could be performed by a State or municipal government, or 3) could be addressed through free market competition in the private sector. At the very least, such an analysis must be performed before rushing to the conclusion that every perceived problem must be solved through Federal legislation and the subsequent establishment of another Federal agency.
The size of our Federal government is largely our own fault. Part of the problem is that we continue to elect representatives to Congress whom we reward with reelection when they bring Federal dollars to their home districts. This is cl
assic “pork barrel politics”, and it does nothing except make the problem worse. Until we begin to disassociate Federal representation with Federal largesse, government will continue to grow. A Constitutional amendment limiting terms of Federal representatives and Senators would go a long way toward relocating governmental power in the United States to where it primarily belongs: to the States and the People.
© 2009 by Michael F. Cochrane. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.