Thursday, April 01, 2010

Broken Promises

Do you tell the truth? Do you keep your promises? Both questions are asking pretty much the same thing, because a promise is a statement that you will do something or that you will not do something; if you don't keep your promise, then you didn't tell the truth. The usual punishment for not telling the truth and for not keeping a promise is the same – you lose credibility and people tend not to believe you. Every official of the government of the United States and every official of each of the states is required to by Article VI of the Constitution of the United States to promise by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. However, many government officials at the federal and state level behave as if they have never read the Constitution that they have promised to support, have forgotten what it says, or never had any intention to keep their promise. When they have no respect for the truth or for promises, they should not be surprised when people hold them in low regard. A journalist recently asked a prominent member of Congress where in the Constitution the Congress finds the authority for some of the provisions in the health care reform legislation that recently became law. His response was that there is no authority in the Constitution for most of the things that Congress does. I find such arrogance and contempt despicable, but unfortunately not surprising. A man that could make such a statement without seeing the contradiction between that and the fact that all members of Congress have taking an oath to support the constitution has no morals and no honor. The health care reform legislation is being challenged by the attorneys general of several states because several provisions of it are unconstitutional, but that is the subject of a different discussion.

Speaking of promises, Congress has repeatedly created entitlement programs in which it has made promises to make payments in the future or to pay for services without making sure that the government will have the money to keep those promises. Across the country, state and local governments have done the same thing with the pension funds of government workers. It is easy to make promises; it is not so easy to keep them. It is especially easy for a politician to make a promise that will not have to be kept until after the politician is retired or otherwise out of office, in effect trying to commit someone else to keep the promise. Some states (California being the most prominent example) are on the verge of bankruptcy. If being unable to keep its financial commitments is the definition of bankruptcy, then the United States is already bankrupt. The credit rating agency Moody's has warned that the United States may soon lose its triple-A credit rating if it doesn't get its debt under control. If Moody's and other credit rating agencies took their jobs seriously, the United States would have lost it triple-A credit rating years ago. Social Security began paying out more money this year than it took in this year. As more baby boomers retire, Social Security will become a bigger and bigger drain on the treasury. Medicare is even a bigger threat to the budget. Congress has shown no restraint in creating even more entitlements. Entitlements and interest on the debt are growing so fast that if nothing is done to stop from growing at their present rate, entitlement and interest on the debt will consume the entire federal budget within a decade or two. That means that there will be no money for vital government functions such as defending us from criminals, terrorists, and foreign governments that mean to do us harm. The functions of the government will be reduced to doing nothing more than writing checks. The government will be forced either to break some of the promises it has made – to pay for such entitlements as Social Security and Medicare or to pay the interest on its debt or to inflate the currency so that it makes these payments with worthless money. Either alternative will lead to major social unrest.

Much of the financial problems of the federal government came from its assumption of powers that it does not have under the Constitution. The powers of the federal government are listed (or as lawyers say, “enumerated”) in section 8 of Article I of the Constitution. Actually the powers of Congress are listed there, and the power of the Executive and Judicial branches are listed elsewhere, but the point is that the Constitution attempted to define and limit the powers of the federal government. To hammer home the point, the Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights states, “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.” If the federal government had kept itself within the confines of the boundaries set out for it in the Constitution, it would be much smaller, less expensive, and more effective in doing those tasks that the Constitution delegated to it.

What can we do to reverse or lessen the damage? It may already be too late to reverse it, but we can make the damage less severe by electing honorable people who will do more to keep promises already made and make new ones than cannot be kept, people who will actually keep the oath that they are required to make to support the Constitution. We can use the amendment process in the Constitution to strengthen the Constitution and to shrink the federal government back down to a manageable size. Since the Congress has historically shown little restraint and since members of Congress are not likely to propose amendments that will diminish their own authority, I think we need to think seriously of asking our state governments to propose a constitutional convention. Article V of the Constitution provides two methods by which amendments to the Constitution may be proposed. Only one of them has been used for all the amendments so far, and that is a vote of two-thirds of each house of Congress. The other method is a convention that the Congress must call upon application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. Possible amendments that might be proposed by such a convention might include an amendment to provide term limits for members of Congress. They might include an amendment requiring the federal government to balance its budget each years unless there is an emergency as declared by three-fourths (or some other supermajority) of the Congress, or one that limits government spending to 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product. An amendment might be proposed to require Congress to state in each piece of legislation where in the Constitution it finds the power to do what it is attempting to do. Proposed amendments might clarify how many of the current parts of the Constitution are to be interpreted to frustrate the attempts of government officials to use vagueness of language to abuse their power. Amendments might be proposed to begin the orderly winding down of government programs that have grown “too big to fail.” Many people are fearful of a constitutional convention because there are no limits to what a convention might propose and it might propose bad things, like repealing the Bill of Rights. However, to become effective any amendment must be ratified either by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. Any amendment proposed by a constitutional convention that was extreme or harmful would not be likely to be ratified in three-fourths of the states. We may need a constitutional convention to take our country back from the promise breakers and make it healthier, more durable, and a better place for our children to live.

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