A New Year’s Resolution for Government

Published January 14, 2011

Many of us mark the New Year as a time to make promises and commitments, resolutions for certain things we will attempt or avoid, in an effort toward self-improvement. Allow me to recommend a simple resolution for our elected politicians in 2011: start paying attention to the Constitution.

Laudably, part of the next Congress already has adopted this rule: as one of their first changes in the House, the Republican leadership will require that every introduced bill cite specific constitutional authority.

This may seem an uncontroversial rule. And how can anyone object to it? It certainly will avoid embarrassment on the part of our elected officials for attempting laws without such authority.

Yet the nation’s entrenched political elite has given no evidence they’re ready for anything more challenging-such as actually keeping their campaign promises, avoiding name-calling, or swearing off pork barrel spending. In fact, they’re already complaining about the new rule. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) called it “an air kiss they’re blowing to the Tea Party” and claimed “Anything we’re doing that’s unconstitutional will be thrown out in court.”

Yes, it will-as Virginia saw earlier this month, when Judge Henry Hudson ruled the individual mandate included in President Barack Obama’s health law, requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, is unconstitutional. Experts on both sides of the aisle now question whether the mandate will survive the legal challenges mounted by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and others in other states-and if the mandate falls, the entirety of Obama’s most significant domestic policy could become unworkable.

“This ruling is extremely positive for anyone who believes in the system of federalism created by our Founding Fathers,” Cuccinelli told me in an interview at the time of the ruling. “It underscores that the Constitution’s limitations on federal power mean something.”

That’s what this New Year’s resolution is all about. Politicians need to recognize their power is limited not only by their whims or interests but by the rule of law and the words the Founders inscribed. This resolution would help end the silliness of having to litigate every policy of significance to determine its intent and scope. And it would help politicians too busy or too arrogant to read the Constitution to avoid the embarrassment of having their pet policies overruled.

Think for a moment how easily this whole messy mandate circumstance could’ve been avoided. At one point during the long-running debate over the health care law, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was asked by a reporter about the constitutional authority for the mandate. Pelosi’s response was an incredulous “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

Yes, Ms. Speaker, we are serious. Imagine how different things would be if the now former Speaker had started by finding out what the Constitution said she could do, not just assuming that whatever she willed was in her power to demand-“so let it be written, so let it be done.”

Our elected officials and government servants, no matter the office or position, ought to start 2011 with this basic resolution in mind: pay attention to the Constitution. It’ll save them from looking foolish, and will relieve the rest of us from a whole lot of headaches.

– Benjamin Domenech is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of “Health Care News,” ([email protected]).