Sunday, September 17, 2017 - To Stop A Runaway by Myles Culbertson
Back in 1979, I was one of a group of a couple dozen young cattlemen that met in Washington DC with various legislative and executive branch leaders. From farms and ranches across the country, all in our 20’s and 30’s, most of us were encountering top levels of federal government for the first time. At USDA, we joined together in a conference room with the Secretary of Agriculture and several of his senior personnel for a revealing and, for us, troubling insight into the political mindset of an administrative state.
The Secretary sat polite and quiet at the head table while several senior personnel on his right and left began an orchestrated lecture to our group of young cattle producers about how it was no longer agriculture’s department of government. “The new USDA is now the department of the consumer,” one said, and declared the interests of the country’s agricultural producers were no longer the agency’s focus. The mostly one-sided discussion was condescending, bordering on hostile, and our group was more than a little caught off guard by the tone. Meanwhile, the Secretary, the President’s man in the room, sat timid and compliant.
During the short question and answer exchange, I raised my hand: “Being that this is an election year and considering the positions you have laid out today, what happens to all this if there is a basic change, in other words if the sitting President is not re-elected?” I had not intended it to be a provocative question, but they took it that way. The crusty old high-ranking career type on the Secretary’s right took the question, declaring, “presidents come and presidents go,” and, rudely pointing his thumb toward the Secretary, he continued, “and it doesn’t matter who is sitting in that chair. We are the ones who run the department, and we’re not going anywhere.”
It turns out he wasn’t entirely correct about where he was not going. A new President was elected that year, and apparently this official had gained the attention of more than just our little bunch of cowboys. I eventually learned the new Boss transferred him to a remote inspection station at a minor border crossing in Minnesota, where he finished out his career.
Although much of the administrative state as we know it had its beginnings in the FDR days, I believe we were witnessing, in 1979, an aggressive acceleration that was even eclipsing the president’s own agenda at the time, analogous to a horse “cold-jawing” and running off. In the decades since, there have been piecemeal attempts to bring the bureaucracy to heel, but the curve has always trended upward to the point that the administrative state is now not just an instrumentality of government, but in many ways the government itself, unaccountable, with its own executive, legislative and judicial functions formerly reserved to, and separated between, the branches set forth in the Constitution.
Over the years I have had the privilege of working with many dedicated professionals in government, true public servants, men and women who do their country proud. However, many of the agencies they work for have suffered decades-long mission creep, growing into an overall bureaucracy whose reach is excessive and whose appetite demands hundreds of billions of dollars each year from an irresponsible Congress that, in some ways, resembles the timid Ag Secretary of that 1979 meeting.
The natural gravitational pull of human nature causes people and organizations to invade spaces when no boundaries are set. In government, such voids are created by a Congress that has become accustomed to passing legislation that reads more like platitudes than laws, providing funding with non-existent dollars, and instructing the agencies to write their own rules. With no mechanism for serious legislative review, the legislators simply write the hot check and hurry off to the next fashionable topic, casting accountability and restraint aside.
The results are as suffocating as they are predictable. At the time of our meeting in 1979 the national debt was $827 billion (31% of GDP). Today it is $20.4 trillion (107% of GDP). Each man, woman, and child in the United States owes a stifling $60,000 piece of this debt that will ultimately come due in one devastating form or another. Prosperity and productivity strangle, while government continues to grow, regulate, dominate, and “spend like a drunken sailor” as I used to say, until an old sailor reminded me that, in his day, when he ran out of money he would quit drinking.
Over the past several years, the unelected regulators were turning out more than 80,000 pages of new regulations yearly, causing an annual $1.88 trillion in lost economic productivity & higher prices, costing each household almost $15,000. New major regulations were outpacing new laws by a ratio of 16 to 1. (Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2014). In 2015, regulation’s direct cost to the economy amounted to $197 billion, and forced 127 million paperwork burden hours on America’s businesses and families (American Action Forum).
But, at the end of the day, is the bureaucracy alone to blame?
Today, we shake our collective fist at the 440-plus federal agencies and their 1.4 million employees; however, the administrative state is only a product of those who construct and feed it. Simplistically pointing the finger at the bureaucracy is not unlike blaming an overweight housecat for eating everything the owner gives it.
Ideological presidents have often misused the powers of the executive branch to pursue their agendas, but the legislative branch has done little to slow the runaway. When Congress became a career choice rather than a term of service, the natural rules of self-interested human nature took over. As a result, the combination of ambitious presidents and a pandering, self-dealing Congress has delivered to the American people not only a stifling regulatory environment, but a crushing national debt that will eventually fall to the American people for collection.
Those who make up the Legislative Branch have repeatedly proven they will not limit themselves, force accountability on the government, or restrain their own profligate spending. Without concise constitutional direction they will refuse to change their ways. The corrosive combination of career politicians, debt, and regulatory over-reach would appear to be unstoppable, casting America into permanent decline with no possibility of returning to its exceptional past, but that isn’t the case. The nation’s original rulebook, the Constitution, holds the key to a solution as big as the problem.
Interestingly, and fortunately, concise constitutional direction can be imposed. The founders of our nation and the framers of its Constitution took into account the fact of human nature, acknowledging that both virtue and vice exist concurrently among those who govern. Checks and balances were built into the articles of the Constitution to deal with such human frailties, and for times like these, the mechanism in Article V provides the means to propose amendments in order to clarify and strengthen the Constitution’s fundamental intent. The Constitution has been amended 27 times, all proposed by Congress and ratified by at least ¾ of the states. Other amendments have been proposed by Congress but defeated by the states; and one, prohibition, was repealed by the states.
In their wisdom, the framers also anticipated times when Congress, succumbing to human nature, would be unwilling to propose amendments that threaten the self-interested motives of its members. With that in mind, language was included in Article V to give the states themselves the authority to convene for the purpose of proposing amendments for ratification, bypassing Congress. Two thirds (34) of the state legislatures can bring together a national convention to consider amendments limited to the common language set forth in the respective states’ resolutions.
A rapidly growing movement has taken root across the country to call for a convention to consider amendments that would impose fiscal restraint, limit the power & jurisdiction of the federal government, and set term limits on federal officials. Some two million citizens have signed on to the effort, residing in every state legislative district in the United States. To date, 12 states have passed identical resolutions calling for a convention. Another 23 have active legislation in play this year.
This is no mere flash in the pan. Known as the Convention of States Project, the traction is evident, pushing toward the reality of a convention to be called under the constitutional authority of Article V, with all fifty states in attendance, to discuss, develop debate, and propose amendments to the American people for their ratification.
The scope of the Convention’s deliberations will be dictated, and limited, by identical language contained in resolutions of a minimum of 34 states: “(1) impose fiscal restraint, (2) limit the power & jurisdiction of the federal government, and (3) set term limits on federal officials.” Nothing may be considered outside that scope. Any proposals arising from the convention will have to run the gamut of at least 38 of the fifty states to be ratified as amendments.
In 1979, we observed at our USDA meeting, as well as in conferences with the legislators, that congressional indifference had already allowed a degree of erosion of the Founders’ intended form of government. However, I doubt anyone on either end of the political spectrum would have believed that, less than 40 years later, federal regulation would seize such a broad stranglehold, or that the direct national debt would exceed the country’s Gross National Product, or that the total unfunded liabilities added in would increase the obligation by a factor of five, or that our elected officials, more concerned about their careers than the country, would allow any of this. But, here we are in 2017, facing all of it.
The framers of the Constitution recognized the possible scenario of an out of control government, and so provided the simple language of Article V: “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress”
If the Convention of States Project succeeds, and it very likely will, Americans will have an opportunity to reign in this cold-jawed runaway and force accountability on those who were sent to serve, not to rule. It will be accomplished by using the exact mechanism prescribed by the framers. Those in the deep-rooted political and administrative establishment may presently believe they are not going anywhere but, like the fellow whiling away his days at that remote border crossing, they should not be so certain about where they think they are not going.
Information on the Convention of States Project can be found at www.conventionofstates.com .
A topic which should be of interest to many. Check out their Real Answers to Article V Questions and let us know your thoughts.