Politicians lustfully rejoicing at their own power is the ultimate “dog bites man” story that goes unremarked in Washington. The Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump included one such vivid vignette, an ominous warning that Congress recognizes no limit on its rightful sway over the economy and the lives of American citizens.
House Impeachment Manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is being lionized for his speeches in the trial. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) hailed Raskin as “America’s professor.” In his final pitch to senators on Thursday, Raskin included the usual hackneyed references to Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. Then Raskin recited the first “We the People” sentence of the preamble of the Constitution and declared: “You see what just happened? The sovereign power of the people…flowed right into Congress.”
That line may have caused some Founding Fathers to roll over in their graves, and we’ll return to this point in a moment.
Raskin continued, waving his arms and becoming more emotional as he recited the powers that Congress possessed:
Comprehensive vast powers that all of you know so well! The power to regulate commerce, domestically and internationally, the power to raise the budget and taxes and to spend money and govern the seat of government and on and on and on.
Raskin then fervently declared that Congress was also entitled to “all other powers that would be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers. That’s all of us!”
This “all of us” makes Congress sound like a wonderful club; too bad you and I aren’t in it.
Raskin’s spiel accurately portrays how plenty of legislators perceive their prerogatives. Congress is entitled to spend as much as it pleases (such as Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID “stimulus”) – because they were elected. Congress is entitled to impose any restriction it pleases on domestic or international trade – because they were elected. Congress is entitled to impose new taxes, seizing more of citizens’ property – because they were elected. Because they won an election, legislators feel entitled to domineer the people who voted for them – and anyone else who falls under their sway.
Raskin can now pass for a “public intellectual” because a staffer inserted quotes from Voltaire and Thomas Paine in his closing speech. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s epigram on the de facto job description of Congress – “the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to another” – did not make it into Raskin’s speech. Nor did Raskin mention one of Paine’s best known lines: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
Like most members of Congress, Raskin ignored the most valuable parts of the Constitution – the “shall make no law” provisions, the dozens of “Do Not Enter” signs erected by the Bill of Rights. Legislators scoff at those paper blockades and instead rhapsodize over the powers that other parts of the Constitution award them. The Fifth Amendment protects property rights and due process but members of Congress don’t even genuflect to those provisions of the Constitution any more.
Instead, reckless legislating has been standard procedure on Capitol Hill for three decades. Members of Congress have become so arrogant that they brazenly spend trillions of dollars of other people’s money without even reading the legislation they approve, such as last December’s unread 5,593-page omnibus bill that will cost taxpayers $2.3 trillion. After the Obama administration and its allies pushed the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act through Congress, numerous legislators admitted they hadn’t read the bill. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) explained: “I don’t expect to actually read the legislative language, because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I’ve ever read in my life.” But not nearly as confusing as the blizzard of new mandates and penalties inflicted on American citizens and private companies.
Politicians believe they are so superior to common folks that citizens will be better off even when politicians have little clue of what they are dictating to the American people. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) urged his colleagues to vote for a massive unread omnibus bill in 2014: “Hold your nose and make this a better world.” No wonder federal spending is out of control and the federal debt is a growing threat to our future.
Legislators also occasionally make stark how they view themselves as a superior caste. This week’s Senate impeachment trial was spurred by 800 pro-Trump protesters swarming into the Capitol on Jan. 6. Some of the protestors clashed violently with police and some legislators tearfully testified about their personal trauma. But some members of Congress have no hesitation to throw other Americans to the wolves at the same time they demand unlimited police protection themselves.
Last April, shortly before the nation’s homicide rate began skyrocketing after the death of George Floyd, Raskin urged the Department of Homeland Security to “remove gun retailers and manufacturers from the list of essential businesses in its guidance to local and state officials in containing the spread of COVID-19. Firearm distributors provide no proven public health benefit, and in fact, the proliferation of guns pose added safety threats to communities.” As city after city was ravaged by violent protests and police protection collapsed, Raskin did not cease his efforts to block Americans from access to firearms to defend their own lives.
In his final speech to the Senate, Raskin recited warnings about tyranny but seemed oblivious to how his own philosophical conceits lead to elective despotism. A 1937 Senate report aptly declared that “the Constitution…is the people’s charter of the powers granted those who govern them.” The Bill of Rights recognized the rights of American citizens—it did not bestow those rights on a conquered populace. But Raskin claimed “the sovereign power of the people…flowed right into Congress.”
That notion should be heretical in a free society. As Sen. John Taylor of Virginia wrote 200 years ago, “If the people are sovereign, their governments cannot also be sovereign.” As a federal appeals court declared in 1973, “Sovereignty remains at all times with the people, and they do not forfeit through elections the right to have the law construed against and applied to every citizen.”
As Taylor observed in 1820, the Constitution “wisely rejected this indefinite word [sovereignty] as a traitor of civil rights, and endeavored to kill it dead by specifications and restrictions of power, that it might never again be used in political disquisitions.” Politicians do not become entitled to boundless power simply by poaching the inalienable rights of people they claim to represent. Though modern historians have buried the phrase, the Founding Fathers were intently aware of the danger of “Slavery by Parliament.”
Only 25% of Americans now approve of Congress, though legislators take solace in the flattery heaped upon them by MSNBC, CNN, and much of the Washington press corps. No amount of selective quotes from the Constitution by Raskin and other righteous legislators will curb the contempt that politicians have richly earned. Many Americans instinctively recognize that, as Thomas Paine declared, “The trade of governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and the most rascally individuals of mankind.”
James Bovard has authored ten books, including "Attention Deficit Democracy," "Public Policy Hooligan," "The Bush Betrayal," and "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty." He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and numerous other publications. He sits on the USA Today Board of Contributors, is a frequent contributor to The Hill, and also serves as a contributing editor for American Conservative.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on the American Institute for Economic Research.