It is a close contest which recent assertion of executive authority crowns the rest, but the Administration’s potential skirting of the Senate’s treaty power in negotiating an international agreement on climate change ranks high in the running. The Constitution’s explicit partnering of the Presidency and the Senate in binding the nation in global agreements, combined with the two-thirds majority needed in the upper chamber of Congress to affirm them, points to the unique dangers of cutting one institution out of the process. President Obama is not the first to do this.
There is not the slightest constitutional pretext for deferring enforcement of unworkable provisions of the Affordable Care Act. By all accounts it is reasonable policy to do so. But the constitutional precedent is profoundly troubling. Congress’ craven capitulation to it is even more so.
No one has noticed in the present case because Congress and the President seem generally to agree on this course. Republicans do not want the law enforced at all, and most Democrats appear to concur in President Obama’s conclusion that more time is needed before certain parts of it should be enforced.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts that will offer contrasting opinions on the NSA electronic surveillance programs. Angelo Codevilla’s essay will appear tomorrow.
On July 24th, 2013, the United States House of Representatives defeated an amendment to the Defense Department’s Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 that called for greater restrictions on the National Security Agency’s ability to gather electronic information, including phone records of American citizens. Ninety-four Republicans and 111 House Democrats voted in favor of the amendment, while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against it. The amendment’s sponsors shared very little in common, other than the fact that they are both from Michigan. Republican Justin Amash, a devotee of free markets and limited government, joined forces with John Conyers, a perennial opponent of American foreign and defense policy since he was first elected to Congress in 1964.
A friend from high school, distressed by the results of Tuesday’s balloting, circulated a prayerful plea that President Obama’s re-election indicates “our nation is in a sinful state” whose consequences we must “suffer” until we repent our “wicked ways.”
This is what Robert Dahl identified as the phenomenon of intensity in politics. Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey identified its solution: the constitutional regime delineated in The Federalist—which means, Houston, we have a problem.
Coming after the first progressive wave of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge’s White House tenure boldly challenged their expansive ideas about executive power specifically and federal power generally. Coolidge’s presidency was marked by an understanding of the power and limits to the federal government in terms more congenial to those of the Framers. Instructive in this regard are Coolidge’s fiscal and agricultural policies, and his attempts at federal restraint in the face of regional flood disasters that were marked by repeated calls for bold government action.
The Enduring Importance of Willmoore Kendall
Once upon a time in America, conservatives celebrated Congress as the last best hope to preserve the authentic traditions of republican government. As recently as the 1960s, it was “conservative” to look to the first branch of government as the indispensable bulwark against the Imperial Presidency, Supreme Court activism, plebiscitary democracy, and federal social engineering programs. As long as the American people also looked to Congress to play this defensive role, the political system would remain intact.
No postwar conservative was more optimistically wedded to this perspective than Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967). Kendall, a defender of majority-rule (with some qualifications), particularly stood out among conservatives of his time as a fervent believer in the good sense of his fellow Americans to elect the “best men” to office. Americans were at least capable of being the “virtuous people,” who would insist that Congress preserve the traditions of the Founding. The principal evidence to which Kendall referred here was The Federalist, a text that he treated as political scripture for Americans. Kendall insisted that the Federalist provides the best possible interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. In his 1965 essay, “How to read ‘The Federalist,’” (which can be conveniently found along with his other major political essays in Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall, University Press, 1994), Kendall explained why this great work of political philosophy laid out what conservatives ought to be busy conserving: a particularly aristocratic version of majority-rule. “Publius,” the famed pseudonymous author of The Federalist, teaches
I’m quite grateful to Michael Ramsey for his engagement with the arguments in my book, Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. I appreciate, of course, his praise of the parts that alone, he says, would be “worth the purchase price of the book”—the parts on those landmark cases of Near v. Minnesota, the Pentagon Papers and the Snepp case—perhaps with the iconic case of Bob Jones University thrown in. But I’d record a special gratitude for a move of his that has become regrettably rare in the review of books: a willingness to cite extended…