Bill Murchison

The mind boggles, and then again, maybe it doesn't, having become what you might call boggle-proof over repeated assertions of federal government power to do this and do that, whatever you please, don't bother asking.

The newest proof -- anyway as of Monday -- was the Obama administration's plan to fix General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy filings and the Lord only knows what else.

At such a spectacle there wasn't room to wonder after the administration told the chairman of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, to scram, get lost.

Is there anything at all, we might ask at this dramatic passage in U.S. history, that the U.S. government doesn't feel fully empowered to do? Nothing suggests itself, which is a big part of the tragedy of our times.

I invite the reader to gaze higher than mere Events usually cause us to gaze, and to look at what is going on. Every supposed constitutional limit one can think of is falling without remark, far less protest. The American people seem to have made up their minds, presumably without bothering to exercise them, to the effect that the Constitution doesn't divide or limit power the way we were once taught.

That old piece of parchment carefully delineated powers. The federal government, by advance arrangement, could do specific things. Others it couldn't do. A role remained for the states, stipulated in the 10th amendment. Good taste and a healthy measure of modesty on the part of the executive and legislative branches were supposed to restrain the illegitimate exercise of powers illegitimately assumed.

Of course it never worked perfectly. Thomas Jefferson, anti-centralist as he was, stretched the meaning of the treaty power so that he might purchase Louisiana. It was a good lick, in many ways, but it showed that the Constitution, as a brake on the exercise of power, had its limits. Over the decades, the Constitution barely changed, save through the accretion of amendments like the one authorizing an income tax. What changed was the disposition of the Constitution's interpreters to decide that A Good Idea just had to be constitutional. Vigilance relaxed. Congress and the President got in the habit of doing pretty much what they wanted. Our luck was that much of the time they chose not to do the outrageous.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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