When the U.S. House convenes next month under GOP leadership, one of its first pieces of business will be the reading aloud of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, every bill introduced in the House will be required to cite the specific provision of the Constitution that allows Congress to pass such a law.
The goal, Republicans say, is to remind our elected officials that under the Constitution, the powers of the federal government are to be “few and defined,” as James Madison put it.
That proper division of powers between state and federal authorities will be a recurring theme in the 2011 General Assembly as well. Republican leaders in Georgia, including Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, say they are intent on reasserting the rightful, constitutional role of states against an overly intrusive federal government.
In case you’re not getting the message, Republicans are serious about the Constitution. Unlike the Democrats, who treat the nation’s founding document as a mere series of suggestions, Republicans see the Constitution as sacred writ to be followed as originally intended.
Except, not really. Not when put to the test.
For example, the top priority of Georgia’s political and business establishment in the upcoming Congress is to acquire at least $400 million in federal funds to deepen Savannah’s port. With bigger cargo ships coming on line by 2015, the project is critical to expanding Georgia’s role in global shipping. State Republican leaders take the project so seriously that they have even recruited Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to serve as an emissary to the Obama administration to help get the project funded.
But strictly interpreted, the Constitution does not allow the federal government to spend money on such projects, a fact that was a recurring feature of political debate in the early days of our republic.
In 1822, for example, President James Monroe vetoed a bill funding road construction and repair. The Constitution, he wrote, gives the federal government no authority to fund such “internal improvements,” which instead were traditionally funded by states or private investors.
In 1831, President Andrew Jackson issued a similar veto. “If it be the wish of the people that the construction of roads and canals should be conducted by the federal government,” he wrote, they must amend the Constitution to allow it.
However, the most telling testimony comes from the man cited so often as a champion of limited federal power. In 1817, President Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” vetoed a major public works bill.
Even though he recognized “the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses,” Madison wrote, “the legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”
In other words, if deepening the Savannah River is as important to Georgia as our state leaders claim — and it probably is — then a strict, Madisonian reading of the Constitution requires that the taxpayers of Georgia pay for the project.
And if state leaders are serious about independence from federal intrusion, if their talk about enumerated powers is more than mere bluster designed for partisan advantage, they will cease petitioning Washington and appropriate the money themselves.
On the other hand, if they fail to do so, if instead they press ahead with demands that federal taxpayers foot the bill, they will in effect be acknowledging what they claim to reject, that time and necessity have quietly altered the meaning of Madison’s Constitution, and that their protestations to the contrary are mere cynical theater.
– Jay Bookman