Obama Is Disrespecting the Constitution

January 17, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: United States

Obama Is Disrespecting the Constitution

Sweeping executive orders, questionable recess appointments, mass surveillance. The dangers of concentrated power.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Couple it with a phone and it becomes mightier than Congress—and perhaps even the Constitution.

That’s one way of interpreting President Obama’s promise to use some combination of the bully pulpit and executive orders to bypass Congress. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Obama said at the year’s first Cabinet meeting. “We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need.”

After all, why wait? We are the ones we have been waiting for.

While the president also stressed he was “looking forward to working with Democrats and Republicans, House members and Senate members,” his remarks were redolent of Clinton aide Paul Begala’s enthusiastic—if constitutionally illiterate—celebration of executive orders: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kind of cool.”

But in an administration that increasingly seems to wing it when it comes to limits on its own power, it may not be the law or the land or particularly cool. Even the liberal justices of the Supreme Court appeared skeptical of the White House’s expansive claims of recess appointment powers during oral arguments Monday.

That’s no guarantee the court will overturn the suspect recess appointments. After all, the justices—even the liberal ones—once seemed equally dubious of the administration’s constitutional arguments for Obamacare. But the health care law is still with us, littering the country with insurance cancellation notices and error messages.

Constitutional niceties don’t trouble the Obama administration. Though, to be fair, they aren’t a major concern of many of its opponents either. Witness former Bush administration official John Yoo, who was very troubled by Obama’s recess appointments, defending the NSA surveillance program.

No constitutional violations here. Move along, citizen.

When I wrote a book about the political prospects of limited government, a reviewer complained I never described what a less gargantuan government should look like: “He kind of vaguely implies that we should go back to doing what we did in ‘the good old days,’ as if nothing had changed since 1780 when the Constitution was written and the U. S. was an agrarian nation of 3 million.”

As if a diverse nation of 300 million people with an advanced economy is more conducive to centralized command and control! But desiring limited government—or even just lawful government—doesn’t mean we are forever frozen in George Washington’s first term. It does, however, require a stability in the process for delegating powers to government, because the tendency to usurp power hasn’t changed since the founding of the republic.

Elites chafe at limits on government power. The limits tend to frustrate exciting policy debates with boring, stifling procedures and processes. From New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, there’s even a little longing for Communist China.

“One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Friedman allows. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” Oh, to be Beijing for a day. Or Tiananmen Square, minus the tanks.

Some people aren’t embarrassed to call for virtually unlimited government. Rolling Stone published the thoughts of one Jesse Myerson, who believes millennials should be championing such economic reforms as the abolition of private property and Social Security for everyone. “Because as much as unemployment blows,” Myerson reasoned, “so do jobs.”

In response to critics of his article, which included people who happened to live through the twentieth century, Myerson lamented, "What they don't seem to understand is: I really am very nice and don't want gulags."

The planted axiom is that only private sector actors, like greedy Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOS, aren’t nice. People who work in government are almost uniformly nice, altruistic guardians of the public interest. But such sentiments inevitably run into a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, where New Jersey officials—with or without Gov. Chris Christie’s knowledge—appear to have closed access lanes to punish the constituents of a mayor who didn’t endorse Christie for reelection.

Traffic jams fall well short of the gulag. But they are one of many little ways that politicians and bureaucrats can use government to reward their friends and punish their enemies. You can try to stop abuses of power. Given the reality of human nature, it might be better just to limit the power.

That’s not to say that only politicians and bureaucrats behave badly. The private sector abuses that send people looking to Washington or their state capitols for relief are often real. But as no less a friend of energetic government and foe of big business as the Nation magazine recently pointed out, “While certainly no angel, Facebook can’t arrest you, put you on the No-Fly list with no recourse, seize your property or put you under investigation, audit your finances, imprison you without trial as a terrorist, or order you assassinated by drone.”

And that, in a nutshell, describes the need for limited government.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?