(Centennial Fellow) The federal government wants power, far more power than the Constitution grants, because, after all, officials don't trust mere citizens to do the right things in their lives, and who better to instruct them than their betters in D.C.?
But there that darned Constitution sits, limiting federal sway in the interest of liberty, at least if one looks at what its words obviously mean. So what's to be done? Easy. The power seekers argue that the explicit meaning of the words doesn't count as much as "principles" that fit their progressive predispositions.
We're nearing calamity if positive change does not gallop to the rescue. I can think of few subjects that better illustrate our plight than the Supreme Court case on the health-care-reform law. If the court says it's OK for Washington to compel citizens to buy health insurance and states to spend themselves into oblivion on Medicaid, say goodbye to just about any federal restraint whatsoever.
We didn't get to this danger overnight. It started with progressives looking at an industrializing, urbanizing nation and failing to note that early abuses were disappearing faster than Congress could pass well-intentioned laws that sometimes had worsening results. When the Supreme Court balked during the New Deal at allowing Congress to disregard constitutional limits, President Franklin Roosevelt said to get with the program or he would pack the court with buddies of his. The justices went prone, all the better to kiss his feet.
A chief transgression that followed was playing games with the commerce clause. It allows Congress to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes," but Congress and the courts decided it could mean something much broader, even something as absurd as telling an Ohio farmer named Roscoe Filburn in 1942 that he couldn't grow wheat to feed his livestock.
The movement from rule of law to ridiculous rigmarole gave us a regulatory state stifling our economy and our freedoms. That's not to say all regulations are bad or constitutionally forbidden -- the issue is overreach that now includes an oppressive health-care act that will add significantly to the national debt and to the payments due on millions of insurance premiums.
It will thus endanger our economic future while already keeping businesses from hiring because of expensive obligations to come. It would almost certainly entail health-care rationing of a severity never before seen in this country.
The enactment of this law was based on misconceptions about inferior health care and terribly low longevity that turns out to be the highest in the world when one subtracts deaths due to homicide and accidents.
Yes, there are problems with the health system, just as there are answers. Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economist who once served in the Reagan administration, notes we could take care of the tens of millions who are uninsured by moving from employer-based insurance to individual catastrophic insurance at no more cost than we have today.
Maybe the worst element of Obamacare is the individual mandate telling people they have to buy insurance or pay a penalty. The commerce clause has been cited to justify it, which is silly because the mandate does not regulate commerce. It punishes people for a failure to engage in commerce.
Usually by 5-to-4 votes, the high court has been edging toward reason in recent years, and so there is hope. But if it fails to kill the whole law, we will have a monster on our hands and a Congress allowed to keep creating them forever as our liberties shrink to the unnoticeable. There could be other opportunities for rescue, but a court doing its duty would be a major step in the right direction and would actually foster sane reform of health care at the same time.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow. This column is the second in his special series entitled "The Tipping Point Cometh."