Evolution of the role of government
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The major issues dividing our two political parties seem to revolve largely about the role the federal government should play in our lives, and how they each see the Constitution defining that role.
The Constitution gives Congress certain powers such as to levy taxes, coin and borrow money, regulate commerce – both foreign and between states, establish postal service, declare war and provide armies and a navy, and for the organizing, arming and disciplining of militias. And the 10th Amendment to the Constitution places limits on the powers of the federal government.
The interpretation of these provisions has been a bone of contention between conservatives and populists for the past 225 years. The former contend that they were intended to severely limit the power of government, and the latter counter that the interpretation of the Constitution needs to meet the changing needs of the people.
The most serious conflicts have been over social issues such as social security, welfare measures, health care, racial equality, and broad issues like education, energy and the environment, virtually none of which were of any concern in 1789.
At that time the country was largely agrarian, transportation was by horse and buggy, and people stayed close to their relatives. Health care, welfare, and care of the ill and the elderly were all provided by members of the family and long-time neighbors. If you had a medical problem or an injury, you were cared for at home, the doctor treated you there, and you either recovered or you died. Medical care was very simple and inexpensive. Education was rudimentary, consisting of the 3 Rs, which were more than adequate for most. There was little need for government beyond the essentials written into the Constitution.
But time has changed all of that, and the explosive growth in population and technology has created a need for services that only an expanded central government can provide. Leaving responsibility for issues such as racial equality, labor standards, education, welfare and environmental regulations up to each state would have resulted in enormous inequalities among the states (e.g. slavery). We actually tried leaving clean water and clean air regulations up to each state, and the result was that industries moved to the states with the most lax requirements, and neighboring states suffered both the economic loss and the effects of inadequately controlled pollution coming across their borders.
Many responsibilities of government are nationwide and/or too large to be assumed by the states. Examples are domestic and transportation security, pure food and drug regulation, labor standards, environmental matters, management of federal lands (including national forests and parks), the national highway system, civil aviation and disaster response, to name but a few. Some have even argued for eliminating FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and turning that over to the states. Can you imagine New Jersey, or any state, having to come up with the overwhelming cost of repairing the damage from catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy?
To assess the legality of the expansion of the role of government, we need to look at the wording in both the Constitution and the 10th Amendment. The preamble to the Constitution reads, “We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, addressing the Rights of the States, reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The Preamble to the Constitution charges the federal government with the responsibility to “… promote the general Welfare,” and the 10th Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the States, “… or to the people.” These provisions empower our government to enact legislation to promote the general welfare in response to the will of the people, which is as it should be in a democratic republic.
If our government that does not keep up with the times, and provide for the changing needs of the people, it will fail those it is intended to serve.
– “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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