James Madison: putting principle over pragmatism

The campaign season is on!

That means over the next few weeks, candidates for federal office will spend millions of dollars trying to convince you that their particular slate of programs will “turn the country around.” They’ll propose job creation programs, health care programs and programs to help balding men grow hair.

And boy, will we argue. We’ll argue about the cost of the proposed programs. We’ll argue about the feasibility of the proposed programs. We’ll argue about the fairness of the proposed programs.

But seldom will you ever hear anybody stop and ask, “Hey, does the federal government actually have the constitutional authority to implement this?”

Believe it or not, that used to matter.

In fact, it used to stand as the most important question. Because no matter how good the idea is, and no matter how great the program might turn out to be, if the federal government lacks the power to implement it, it should never see the light of day.

In his last act as president, James Madison vetoed a bill that funded programs he favored. In fact, they were programs he lobbied for. The legislation was a public works bill that would have provided money for federal road and canal construction. Even though Madison believed strongly that the federal government should involve itself in improving the transportation system, he vetoed the bill, arguing that the people must first amend the Constitution to grant the federal government the power to implement such programs.

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Obama More Big Brother Than Bush

During a scene in the 2006 Oscar-winning movie “The Departed,” Martin Sheen’s cop character points at government agents who are working with police during a sting operation and remarks: “All cell phone signals are under surveillance, due to the courtesy of our federal friends over there.” Alec Baldwin’s cop character then slaps the back of a fellow officer in glee, exclaiming: “Patriot Act, Patriot Act! I love it, I love it, I love it!”

I considered this scene to be a Hollywood liberal dig at then-President Bush, whose Patriot Act legislation was considered an assault on civil liberties by the left. At the time, liberals’ greatest beef with Bush was unquestionably on the issues of foreign policy and civil liberties — with the warrantless wiretapping and government eavesdropping permitted by the Patriot Act at the top of the list.

But that was then.

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