CNN's curious constitutional appeal.
A few days ago CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin, speaking about the Republican House bill defunding Obamacare, commented, “Certainly not the way the Founding Fathers maybe drew this thing up.” It’s certainly a surprise to hear an anchor on CNN, an organization biased in favor of progressives, appealing to the authority of the Constitution. For a century the progressives have been telling us that the Constitution is an outmoded document from a different age, and needs to be “modernized” to meet the challenges of a new world.
Listen to Woodrow Wilson in his 1913 book The New Freedom. “I am . . . forced to be a progressive, if for no other reason, because we have not kept up with our changes of conditions, either in the economic or the political field.” A bit later he is more specific about the “political field,” arguing against the Constitution’s central mechanism of checks and balances. “The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life . . . Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop . . . All that progressives ask or desire is permission . . . to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”
This view of the Constitution has been consistent among progressives, and explains much of Barack Obama’s behavior as President. And it directly contradicts the philosophical assumptions behind the Constitution, which are that the defects of human nature, the peoples’ “passions and interests,” as James Madison said, are as constant over space and time as the laws of gravity or motion. Since they can never be eliminated, they can only be balanced and checked by other passions and interests through the institutional structures of the Constitution.
If we probe Baldwin’s appeal to constitutional authority to buttress her attack on the House bill, then, we can see that she knows little or nothing about why the Founders “drew this thing up” the way they did. The key issue is Article 1.7.1.: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” We need to understand the reasons why the Framers gave the House this responsibility.
To do that, we have to remember that the Constitution is in many ways an antidemocratic document. For many Framers, the example of ancient Athenian democracy and its excesses, and the disorder caused by the overly democratic state governments in the decade between the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, made them wary of giving too much direct power to the volatile, uninformed masses. This fear is explicit in the convention debates. Typical are the comments of Virginia governor Edmund Randolph: “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our [state] constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the power of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the [state] constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy.” The Framers’ solution would be the “mixed government” in which the branch directly elected by the people, the House of Representatives, would be balanced and checked by the Senate, indirectly elected through the state legislatures; the President, indirectly elected through the Electoral College chosen by the states; and the federal judiciary, appointed by the President with the Senate’s approval.
Many of the delegates, however, feared the greater powers of the other branches, and their lack of direct accountability to the people. In compensation, they proposed among other powers that money bills should originate in the House, which as Elbridge Gerry said, “was more immediately the representatives of the people, and it was a maxim that the people ought to hold the purse-strings.” The House Representatives, as James Madison would say later, “were chosen by the people, and supposed to be best acquainted with their interests, and ability.” This idea, moreover, was not just compensation for the “democracy deficit” in the rest of the Constitution. Giving the House the “power of the purse” would act as a check on the more powerful Senate. George Mason, arguing against the idea that the Senate should originate money bills, said, “Should the [Senate] have the power of giving away the people’s money, they might soon forget the Source from whence they received it. We might soon have an aristocracy.” Benjamin Franklin agreed: “It was always of importance that the people should know who had disposed of their money, and how it was disposed of.”
We should remember that the Founders’ distrust of human nature extended also to elites that monopolized power, as well as to the masses. Hence “elites” in the government had to be “checked and balanced” as much as the masses. Against those continuing to argue for giving the Senate the power of the purse, George Mason countered, “An aristocratic body, like the screw in mechanics, working its way by slow degrees, and holding fast whatever it gains, should ever be suspected of an encroaching tendency. ––The purse strings should never be put into its hands.” As a compromise to placate the smaller states, the Senate was given the power to add amendments to the money bills originating in the House.
More important are the comments made in The Federalist essays, as these were public, in contrast to the minutes of the debates, and so were meant to convince the average voter. On the issue of originating money bills, James Madison in 58 argued for that power as being a necessary check on the less democratic branches of the government. “The house of representatives can not only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of government. They in a word hold the purse, that powerful instrument . . . This power over the purse, may in fact be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” Clearly, for the Framers the “power of the purse” was intended to be the peoples’ constitutional WMD for checking the other branches when they passed laws or instituted policies contrary to the will of the people.
Contrary to Baldwin, then, the House bill to defund Obamacare is consistent with the intent of the Founders. The law is unpopular, with 52% of the people opposing it. Its exceptions and exemptions doled out to political favorites are unjust, its constitutional violations blatant, and its incompetent construction, confused rollout, and unforeseen future costs dangerous for the public fisc and our exploding debt. If ever there was a “grievance” needing “redress,” Obamacare is it. Defunding Obamacare may or not be a wise tactic politically for Republicans, but its consistency with the Constitution and the intentions of the Founders is not in question.
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