After President Obama took office, a number of GOP officials and candidates embraced “tentherism,” the radical belief that everything from Medicare to Social Security to unemployment insurance to belonging to the United Nations violates the Constitution. Until today, however, it’s been an open question whether the GOP as a whole would embrace this absurd viewpoint, or whether they would leave tenther rhetoric to fringe figures such as Michele Bachmann, Joe Miller or Sharron Angle.
Today’s release of the Republican “Pledge to America,” however, eliminates any doubt regarding the GOP’s stance on tentherism. As two passages from the Pledge make clear, the constitutional lunatics are now in charge of the GOP’s asylum. The first passage is a pledge to read the Constitution as a tenther document:
We pledge to honor the Constitution as constructed by its framers and honor the original intent of those precepts that have been consistently ignored – particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all 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 notion that the framers had some special understanding of the Tenth Amendment which is being “consistently ignored” is classic tentherism. Tentherism’s creation myth harkens back to a more than 200 year-old debate between James Madison and Alexander Hamilton over whether the federal government can spend money on matters not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Tenther mythology teaches that Madison’s narrow view of federal power — a view which tenthers understand to mean that, because the Constitution does not mention health care, Medicare is unconstitutional — was fully embraced by the framers and thus we are bound by it today.
In reality, Article I of the Constitution gives Congress broad authority to “to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States” — a provision that leaves budgeting decisions almost entirely to the “judgment of Congress,” and which clearly provides the power to create popular spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, if tenthers were familiar with the actual history of the United States, they would know that Madison’s narrow view of the Constitution was rejected by the founding generation’s leaders when Congress passed — and President George Washington signed — a national bank bill that was unquestionably unconstitutional under the Madisonian view. President Madison himself would go on to repudiate tentherism, as he signed a similar bank bill that violated his previous understanding of the Constitution.
Later in the GOP’s Pledge, they falsely suggest that the Constitution mandates that unspecified spending be cut:
This lack of respect for the clear Constitutional limits and authorities has allowed Congress to create ineffective and costly programs that add to the massive deficit year after year. We will require each bill moving through Congress to include a clause citing the specific constitutional authority upon which the bill is justified.
Once again, the Constitution places very few limits on Congress’ power to spend money. While the Constitution does limit Congress’ power to pass entirely non-economic regulation, there is simply no way to read Article I of the Constitution’s plain language and conclude that the framers intended the Constitution to be a budget-busting document.
Let’s be clear. Not all federal programs work well or work efficiently, and those that don’t work must be eliminated or replaced. The framers, however, gave us a document which empowers Congress to make these difficult budgeting decisions.
More importantly, there is no plausible theory of the Constitution that would strip out these inefficient programs but leave essential programs like Social Security or Medicare intact. Either Congress has broad discretion over the federal budget, or it does not. If the GOP is right that the Constitution does not give Congress such discretion, then the nation’s entire social safety net will be the casualty.