Post-constitutional America

Yesterday, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The bill now awaits approval from the House.

Per the Association for Addiction Professionals, CARA is the most expansive federal, bipartisan legislation to date for addiction support services, designating up to $80 million toward advancing treatment and recovery support services in state and local communities across the country.

CARA specifically targets addiction to heroin and other opiates, which has grown to staggering levels over the past decade. Opioid addiction has taken a terrible toll in terms of lives lost and families destroyed, not to mention the vast amount of public resources spent in battling what is being described as an epidemic. It’s not surprising, then, that CARA has received tremendous public support, nor that it cleared the Senate on a 94-1 vote.

The problem is that it’s unconstitutional.

The 10th Amendment states:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This means that Congress is explicitly forbidden from doing things that are not spelled out in the Constitution. It doesn’t matter if these are good things, or worthy things, or popular things. If the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power to spend taxpayer money on behalf of individual citizens, and it does not, then it is illegal.

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, put it this way:

I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.

So how does an unconstitutional bill get through the Senate on a 94-1 vote? Senators do take an oath to uphold the Constitution, after all.

The answer is that nobody cares about the Constitution anymore. Our citizens don’t know and understand the Constitution because our schools don’t teach it. Our representatives have no incentive to adhere to it because there are no consequences for ignoring it. All the incentives are for them to “do something” so they have some accomplishment to point to come reelection time.

It’s easy to let this slide, since everyone agrees that this is a noble cause, an “object of benevolence” in Madison’s words. But this is a big deal. Once we start ignoring the supreme law of the land, no matter how good our intentions, the whole fabric starts to unravel, and soon any and every violation of the Constitution is rationalized because it’s for a good cause. The Constitution was designed specifically to combat this kind of thinking, because the Founders knew that it leads to tyranny.

Polls consistently reflect the public’s belief that the country is headed in the wrong direction. They also show that Americans have lost faith in Washington. There is no question that Washington is a huge part of what’s wrong with the country. But it doesn’t seem to occur to people that the reason for this is that Washington no longer works the way the Founders intended it. And that’s because we no longer hold it accountable to our founding document.

The Founders took great pains to create a Constitution that would keep the federal government in its place and keep power in the hands of the people. Within a century, that blueprint allowed us to grow into the greatest nation in all of history. Then we started chipping away at the Constitution, each time in the name of “objects of benevolence”, until we arrived at a point where it’s become irrelevant. And now we wonder what went wrong.

It’s worth noting the lone senator who voted against CARA and his reason for doing so. His name is Ben Sasse, and he’s a rookie Republican senator from Nebraska. His reason?  He “wasn’t sure fighting addition was best addressed by the federal government.”

I have no doubt that Madison would agree.

 

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