David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.
What does Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) have in common with James Madison? Madison’s home is in the congressional district that Allen has represented in the House and Senate. And that’s about all.
Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution, sought to establish a limited federal government. In arguing for its ratification, he promised Americans, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.” A few years later, faced with a bill appropriating $15,000 for the relief of French refugees, he rose on the floor of the House to say that he could not “undertake to lay [his] finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
That’s a far cry from the philosophy of George Allen, who has introduced a bill in the United States Senate to require official approval of any TV ratings system. Indeed, if Madison’s spirit could visit the Commerce Committee hearing room where Allen’s bill was discussed, it would probably say with some severity, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right to Congress to regulate television ratings.”
Allen is hardly the only member of Congress who would be a great disappointment to the Founders. For years, Republicans argued that the Democratic majority in Congress was intruding the federal government into more and more matters best left to the states, the local communities, or the private sector. After 10 years in power, however, the Republicans have seen the Democrats’ intrusiveness and raised them. The Republicans have pushed the feds further into the local schools with the No Child Left Behind Act and tried to take marriage law away from the states with the Federal Marriage Amendment. They overruled a series of Florida courts in the Terri Schiavo case, imposing the massive power of the federal government on a tragic family matter.
But it’s not just these big-ticket items. Republicans have come down with a serious case of Potomac Fever. They believe that their every passing thought is a proper subject for federal legislation. They hold three-ring-circus hearings on steroids in baseball. They sharply increase the fines for alleged indecency on television. They hold hearings on whether college textbooks are too expensive. They threaten to punish Major League Baseball if the owners allow left-wing billionaire George Soros to be a part owner of the new team in Washington. They vote for a federal investigation of the video game “Grand Theft Auto.”
Many of these gambits do target real annoyances and even real problems. But in a free society citizens don’t turn to the national government to solve every problem. Indeed, a free society is measured by the amount of life that remains outside the control of government. We may all be tempted from time to time to say “There oughta be a law!” when we’re angry or frustrated. That’s why we write a Constitution — to protect us from our own temptations to turn our exasperation into laws, and to protect us from our fellow citizens yielding to the same temptation.
Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 by declaring that Democrats had given us “government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” Now, intoxicated with their own power, they have forgotten those words. They too use the powers of the federal government to lavish money on favored constituents, summon us before congressional hearings to explain ourselves, and intrude into our most local and personal decisions.
When Major League Baseball owners suggested that Congress had no authority to investigate steroid use, committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and ranking Democrat Henry Waxman replied that the committee “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.” So much for Madison’s promise that those powers “delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.”