Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was on “Morning Joe” last week making the usual argument you hear from tea partyers. The one that says the federal government has abandoned the Constitution. This concern has always struck me as odd a.) because given the checks and balances of the U.S. political system, that seems beyond far-fetched and b.) because I don’t recall hearing such overwrought concern during the previous administration.
So I asked Coburn to tell me how and when did we abandon the Constitution. Like all tea partyers, he used Article 1, Section 8 as the foundation for his argument. What seemed like the entirety of the Republican right wing tore my skin off for asking Coburn to tell me what exactly Article 1, Section 8 is. Surely there had to be more there than the “enumerated powers” crutch the tea party leans on. But for all his words, Coburn never answered my question.
Go read Article 1, Section 8 and it gives the enumerated powers. And what you’re seeing happen, and this has been a progressive thing, the courts have abandoned the Constitution in not holding the Congress accountable to stay within Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. And this is something that has been progressive. And the American people get it and our Founders got it. And the one part of the balance of power that doesn’t get talked about and what you’re seeing expressed through the Tea Party is the real balance of power that our Founders wanted is “We the People” to hold the government accountable and that’s what’s going to start happening in this country. We’re $16 trillion in debt. We have totally cut the legs out from underneath our kids and grandkids. And now we’re saying there’s something wrong with the people that want to get back to the thing that built this country rather than the thing that tore it down.
Coburn listed no specific law that exemplified an abandonment of the Constitution. “The notion that Congress has somehow overstepped the powers that it’s granted in the Constitution is a hoary old myth,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way. “[D]ecades of legal and historical scholarship have shown that Congress almost never oversteps the bounds that the Founders anticipated.”
Tea partyers railed against Obamacare as Exhibit A in what they saw as President Obama ignoring the Constitution to impose his socialist ways on an unwilling populace. The Supreme Court stripped them of that argument on June 28 when it upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. “They argued that the individual mandate violates the Commerce Clause because requiring someone to buy something isn’t ‘interstate commerce.’ And [Chief Justice John] Roberts and the [Supreme] Court majority agreed,” Bennett told me. “But the court found that the penalty for failure to buy insurance is a tax, and Article 1, Section 8 is crystal clear that Congress has the power to do that.”
And by Coburn’s logic the Supreme Court’s health-care decision is part of that “progressive thing” of “the courts [abandoning] the Constitution in not holding the Congress accountable to stay within Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.” I found this argument especially troubling. If we lose faith in the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, the way we’ve lost faith in the legislative branch, this nation is sunk.
A kindly reader touting the limited power of Congress in the Constitution held up the 16th Amendment, which gave Congress the power to tax income, as an example of something the federal government does that it wasn’t granted the power to do by the Founders. Never mind that those wise men made amending our nation’s sacred document an extremely difficult but possible endeavor to ensure that the Constitution evolved to meet the needs of a growing nation. “That’s the system,” a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration e-mailed me, “an amendment ratified by three-quarters of the states and 2/3 of the senate is now the Constitution! Period.”
Coburn rails against the $16 trillion in debt. He’s right. Yet I don’t recall there being a popular uprising over two wars being funded off the books or tax cuts that weren’t paid for. To listen to tea partyers you’d swear the nation’s pool of red ink was filled on Obama’s watch. And that just isn’t so.
The above chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lays out the facts of the nation’s fiscal situation. The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are known because Obama ended President George W. Bush’s practice of asking for supplemental appropriations and started putting the true costs in his annual defense budgets. The Bush tax cuts are responsible for the bulk of our future deficits. The bailouts of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and the Troubled Asset Relief Program were undertaken by Bush, who has said he “absolutely” would do it all over again in order to save this nation’s economy. The other recovery measures undertaken by Obama figured prominently in the early days of his administration but not so much as the years stretched on.
Coburn said that the “real balance of power that our Founders wanted is ‘We the People’ to hold the government accountable.” By electing more like-minded people to Congress, no doubt. But as we have seen since the 2010 midterm elections, the influx of tea partyers has meant the further erosion of what the Founders exemplified and envisioned for this nation’s governance: compromise. And it has meant the departure of members of Congress fed up with demands of ideological purity.
Third Way’s Bennett took them to task.
“Ironically, it is the far right – the so-called ‘Tea Party’ – that is acting in ways that are fundamentally at odds with what the Founders established. The design of our democracy was built on the necessity of compromise. The Founders could have given us a Prime Minister and a parliament, where one party would rule. But they established a congressional system that requires that representatives of both sides work together to find common ground, as they themselves did in crafting the Constitution. So it is the folks on the right vowing never to negotiate or cooperate who are trampling on the vision of the Framers.”
The enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 cannot fully be exercised without members of Congress willing to compromise. And nothing Coburn said gives me confidence that compromise will come to Washington anytime soon.