Actor Gary Oldman, playing a terrorist in the movie "Air Force One" putting a gun to the head of the President, played by Harrison Ford. (Photo credit: Columbia/TriStar, Claudette Barius)
As the Republican-driven U.S. government shutdown careens forward, everyone who's seen a movie about hostage-taking -- "Air Force One," for instance -- knows what happens now. The terrorists press their demands by beginning to shoot hostages.
Arguably, the Tea Party Republicans have already begun to do that by forcing hundreds of thousands of government employees to be furloughed (including intelligence analysts responsible for detecting attacks by actual terrorists), by shutting down cancer-drug trials for children, and by disrupting hundreds of other important federal programs that protect the physical and financial safety of the American people.
Or as actor Gary Oldman (playing the lead terrorist in "Air Force One") might put it: Eventually we'll wreak so much havoc that you, Mr. President, will have to give us what we want, first the surrender of health-care reform, but once we know how to get our way, there will be no limit to what we can dismantle next. By Oct. 17 -- when the country's debt ceiling is expected to be breached -- the gun will be put to the head of the "full faith and credit of the United States," possibly inducing a global financial panic that could reverse the hard-won economic gains of the past five years and throw millions of people out of their jobs and out of their homes.
In the case of Oldman's movie terrorist, the overarching cause was "Mother Russia." For the Tea Party's political terrorists, it is their neo-Confederate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, a document that they claim to carry around everywhere but apparently have never read.
With all the Tea Partiers' talk about their "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution, they ignore the reality that the Founding document was written primarily by Federalists, such as George Washington, James Madison (who was then Washington's protege), Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris (the chief author of the Preamble).
The Federalists despised the concept of states' rights (as enshrined in the Articles of Confederation) and believed in centralizing power in the federal government, albeit with a system of checks and balances to restrain ill-advised decision-making, but with few other limits on what elected representatives could do for the nation's well-being.
That is why -- in both the Preamble and in Article I, Section 8 (the so-called "enumerated powers") -- the Framers included language giving Congress the authority to "provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States" and "to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers."
As historian Jada Thacker has written, "The Constitution was never intended to 'provide limited government,' and furthermore it did not do so. ... This is not a matter of opinion, but of literacy. If we want to discover the truth about the scope of power granted to the federal government by the Constitution, all we have to do is read what it says."
Given the malleable phrase "general Welfare" and the so-called "elastic clause" for passing all "necessary and proper" laws, Thacker notes that...
"the type, breadth and scope of federal legislation became unchained. ... Taken together, these clauses -- restated in the vernacular -- flatly announce that 'Congress can make any law it feels is necessary to provide for whatever it considers the general welfare of the country.'
"Lately there has been an embarrassingly naive call from the Tea Party to require Congress to specify in each of its bills the Constitutional authority upon which the bill is grounded. Nothing could be easier: the first and last clauses of Article I, Section 8 gives Congress black-and-white authority to make any law it so desires. Nor was this authority lost on the Founders."
The Anti-Federalist Lament
Thacker notes that today's advocates of "limited government" like to cherry-pick a few quotes from The Federalist Papers to lend some credibility to their claims but ignore the Anti-Federalist Papers, essays written by dissident delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. For instance, Thacker cites the dissent of New Yorker Robert Yates written a month after the Constitution was completed:
"This government is to possess absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends. ... The government then, so far as it extends, is a complete one. ... It has the authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and the property of every man in the United States; nor can the constitution or the laws of any state, in any way prevent or impede the full and complete execution of every power given."
Thacker adds: "Yates, it must be emphasized, took pains to identify the 'necessary and proper' clause as the root of the 'absolute power' inherent in the Constitution well over a year before ratification."
And Yates was far from alone in both his reading of the unbounded powers of the Constitution and in his first-hand understanding of what the Framers were thinking. For instance, dissenting delegates from Pennsylvania wrote:
"We dissent ... because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government. ...
"The new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states. ... The powers of Congress under the new constitution, are complete and unlimited over the purse and the sword, and are perfectly independent of, and supreme over, the state governments; whose intervention in these great points is entirely destroyed."
The Pennsylvania dissenters noted that the state sovereignty language from the Articles of Confederation was stripped out of the Constitution and that national sovereignty was implicitly transferred to "We the People of the United States" in the Preamble. They pointed out that the Constitution's Article Six made federal statutes and treaties "the supreme law of the land."