September 17 is a special day for our country. That is the day, in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia agreed to the framework for the nation’s government, our Constitution.
Every American should take time that day to read the seven articles and twenty-seven amendments that are supposed to guide the governance of the country. The Constitution, which is an agreement among we the people as to how we should be governed, did not happen in a vacuum. It was promulgated in the “twelfth year” of our independence, and the drafters had a deep knowledge of the Declaration, contemporary and ancient history, the states’ own individual constitutions and the young nation’s experience with the Articles of Confederation.
What emerged from Philadelphia was a framework designed to defuse power among several branches as well as between the states and Federal government, while recognizing that the citizens, as opposed to any monarch, parliament or other government, were to be the sovereign. Later, the Bill of Rights would be added, which recognized fundamental rights that the government would not infringe. Those foundational principles – separation of powers, federalism, sovereignty in the people, and fundamental individual rights – are what allowed this country to flourish and become exceptional. Those principles have been undermined over time, however, and a recommitment to them is necessary to help get the country back on the right track.
For example, the separation of powers describes how the Founders separated the legislative, executive and judicial functions into separate branches. This would help to protect liberty from arbitrary and capricious government action. Under our system of self-rule, much of that rule is to be accomplished through the representatives that the people elect – and hold accountable – at the ballot box. If a representative votes for a law that a majority of his or her constituents do not like, the people can replace that representative. This is where “consent of the governed” happens, and where sovereignty of the people is exercised.
With the advent of the regulatory administrative state, however, more and more lawmaking has been transferred to the executive branch, and the people have little say about the regulations that end up being put into law. While this trend did not start under President Obama, he has overseen the promulgation of 600 major rules over the past seven years that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement. That’s more than $2,000 for every American. The out-of-control growth of the regulatory administrative state must stop, as it directly contradicts the notion of self-rule and sovereignty in the people. Bills such as the REINS Act, where Congress would have the right to approve major regulations, would put the people back in charge and restore for them an authentic voice in the lawmaking process. Overregulation from Washington has been strangling this economy and has depressed both wages and job opportunities. If we stuck closer to what the Founders envisioned, your representative could put a stop to the more harmful regulations that are hurting jobs and incomes.
Federalism acknowledges different roles for the Federal and state governments. A historic breach in this constitutional framework occurred when the Federal government, through the Department of Education, began to dictate local education policy. The most glaring manifestation of this was the No Child Left Behind Act, which micromanaged our schools and backed teachers into a “teach to the test” model that did not improve education. This year’s education reform bill began the necessary devolution of these responsibilities to the states. Because the bill still reserved to the Federal Secretary of Education a power to approve a state’s education plan, I thought the legislation was insufficient. It was, however, a step in the right direction, and we need to look for more opportunities to allow states to have far more flexibility in the administration of programs.
We also need to get back to basics regarding the fundamental freedoms our Constitution protects. We have seen threats to freedom of speech, religious freedom, the right to keep and bear arms and due process in recent years. Indeed, my own Diocese of Pittsburgh, as well as the Little Sisters of the Poor, had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to protect the right to exercise their religion against an overbearing regulatory agency that would have them provide abortifacient drugs to their employees. Importantly, the Founders did not grant rights in the Constitution; they recognized rights that exist outside of government. Where do those rights come from? President Kennedy in his inaugural address reminded us that they do not come from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. That would be the proper understanding when you read the Constitution in the context of our Declaration of Independence, which articulated inalienable rights coming from a Creator, among them being the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Liberty in our country will be protected in proportion to how much our Constitution, and the principles undergirding it, are respected. If we are to remain exceptional and unique among nations, it will be because we defended the founding principles and foundational freedoms described in our Constitution. This Constitution Day, September 17, let us remind ourselves of that and recommit ourselves to the defense of that document and the Republic that flourishes from it.