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Perpetual Incumbency Machine

By George F. Will
Sunday, November 10, 1991; Page C07


YORK, Pa. — Here in our nation's capital -- our first, as York chauvinists reckon it -- one can sense why Americans are so dismayed about federal government. Here you can hear in your imagination some vanished voices saying, "We warned you."

York has contributed mightily to American civilization. By 1900, 95 percent of America's caramel candies were made here. Earlier, little cigars made here were called "stogies" because they were preferred by drivers of Conestoga wagons that were made just down the road. The misnamed Kentucky Rifles that won the Battle of New Orleans were made here, as was the stove that warmed Gen. Washington at Valley Forge. Here in 1777 Lafayette, then 21, confounded a potential cabal against Washington by proposing a timely toast to the general. Or so the locals say.

But York is best known for what the Continental Congress did here when it fled Philadelphia in 1777, the grim year that the British, noting the three sevens, called "the year of three gallows." On Nov. 15 the Congress approved the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution.

Desperately struggling to throw off a tyranny and determined not to create a new one, the authors of the Articles, knowing that American politicians would not be immune to the lust for power, created only a wisp of a government. Thus began, here in York, America's attempt to discover if a government strong enough for essential purposes can avoid degrading itself by undisciplined wallowing in inessentials. On today's evidence, the attempt is failing.

Impressed by the public spiritedness elicited by the Revolution, the authors of the Articles made, in the words of a contemporary critic, the "amiable mistake" of thinking Americans needed no government. The word "government" never appears in the Articles. Today, as Americans revile Congress, note that the Articles created only one agency of government: Congress. It could do nothing important without nine of the 13 states (one vote per state) concurring. Even then it could not tax or regulate commerce. It could "requisition" money but could not compel compliance.

Shay's Rebellion and other disorders of the 1780s dramatized the dangerous impotence of government in the face of local excesses of democracy. These often involved "debtor politics" -- debasement of currencies, weak tax collections, forgiveness of debts.

The Constitutional Convention, called for "revising" the Articles, effected a revolution against them. It affirmed the goal of the Articles -- a government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers. But the idea of enumeration was soon lost, and the Constitution's limits became too elastic to inhibit the central government's growth and intrusiveness.

Anxious about this possibility, advocates of a Bill of Rights had included the 10th Amendment: "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." Some farsighted pessimists plucked the word "expressly" from a similar provision in the Articles and attempted to bind Congress by amending the 10th Amendment to say that "powers not expressly delegated to the United States" are reserved to the states. Their amendment was rejected.

The Constitution empowers Congress to make any laws "necessary and proper" to promoting the "general welfare." "Necessary" came to be construed broadly to mean "helpful," and anything helpful was deemed proper. So today we have an utterly unleashed and frenzied Congress. It is funding bike paths, fish farms, the production of mohair, the study of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and thousands of other trivialities pleasing to factions in 435 congressional districts. And it is a perpetual incumbency machine. (The Articles included term limits, then known as rotation of offices.)

Today Congress is universally despised because it is so solicitous of its despisers. It tries to do too much, usually at the behest of factions among the despisers. It does thousands of little things, but does none of the important things (budgeting, providing domestic tranquillity -- things like that) adequately.

Congress should come back to York and sit a spell where our constitutional government began. Congress should ponder its plummeting status and the possibility that it has something to learn about limits.

The constitution written here in 1777 created a government too limited to establish the necessary priority of national over state citizenship. But the second Constitution, that written 70 miles east of here 10 years later, created what has become today's swollen government operating with no limits on the incontinent spending and regulating that is undertaken to perpetuate in office the spenders and regulators.

The political ethics of today's permanent governing class do not restrain where the Constitution is permissive. Hence the cool appraisal behind today's hot passion: Term limits are needed as an auxiliary precaution against the perennial lust for power. About that lust, the authors of the Articles warned us.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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