Frank Miele recounts a clarifying exchange that took place between a congressman and a rather angry constituent at one of the "tea parties" we've been hearing so much about:
Citizen: "Where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity? . . . You gave a vote . . . which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me."
Congressman: "'Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give . . . to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did."
Citizen: "The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man... [W]hile you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive, what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. No . . . Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose.
Congressman: "Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it, than all the fine speeches I ever heard. If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote, and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot."
The congressman was none other than Davy Crocket, the great American folk hero, and the "tea party" took place at a "town hall" 180 years ago. The "charity" referred to was $20,000 given to the victims of a fire in the nation's capital.
The underlying principle, however, was as true then as it is in today's health care debate. Once we allow Congress to step beyond the bounds of the Constitution, all that's left to bind them is the deeply fallible precept of human self-control. When we abandon the rule of law, we place our very existence in the hands of faith -- faith in man's fickle judgment and the precariousness of his good intentions.
As John Adams reminds us: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."