- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

A silent danger stalks the American Republic.

Citizens and elected officials alike are no longer inspired by the heroes and philosophy that enabled the United States to become the greatest power featuring the greatest freedom in the history of mankind. There is no Henry Clay declaring he would rather be right than be president. There is no George Washington incapable of pettiness or pretentiousness.

Ignorance is the hemlock of democracy. The Constitution’s checks and balances, Bill of Rights, federalism and limited government wither because neither officeholders nor citizens understand their purposes and the evils they were calculated to arrest. Without informed philosophical convictions, they naturally subordinate the rule of law and institutional restraints to immediate and partisan ends, like a child who cannot resist instant gratification for higher and more enduring aims.

Congress has turned effete. President George W. Bush claims monarchlike authority to flout any statute regulating the gathering of foreign intelligence, for example, criminal prohibitions on warrantless electronic surveillance, breaking and entering, mail openings or torture. He refuses to disclose to Congress in confidential cloisters the details of the National Security Agency’s warrantless spying on American citizens on U.S. soil or the contemporary legal advice purporting to justify the program. Executive privilege is invoked to block former Justice Department officials from testifying. The informing function of Congress — the most important of all — is stifled.

The president asserts permanent wartime powers because the conflict with international terrorism confronts no endpoint. He argues that lethal battlefield tactics appropriate for Kabul and Baghdad are equally justified on America’s streets and sidewalks because al Qaeda has threatened to kill Americans everywhere, i.e., that suspected al Qaeda supporters may be shot outside Domino’s Pizza parlors.

Congress bows to the eclipsing of its constitutional prerogatives with bovine-like docility. The power of the purse and the contempt power lie dormant. President Bush claims a power to summon democracies from the vasty deeps of Afghanistan and Iraq. But Congress does not answer with oversight and skepticism like Hotspur to Glendower, “Why so can we, so can any fool, but will the democracies come when you do call for them?” There are no Fullbright-like hearings on post-Saddam Iraq or post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The right to be left alone without a strong government reason is endangered.

The distinction between military and civilian is being substantially erased. Jose Padilla is an illegal combatant subject to indefinite military detention one day. On the next, he is an accused criminal subject to trial in civilian courts for charges he supplied material assistance to a terrorist organization.

Members of Congress are blissfully unknowing that the constitutional and philosophical theories propounded by President Bush are reducing them to ciphers and risking an unchecked presidency. There is no sense of alarm in either the House or Senate, as there was during Watergate over President Richard M. Nixon’s arrogations and abuses.

Indeed, Congress is on the verge of also surrendering a portion of its power of the purse to the president by enacting a line-item veto. Members are preoccupied with re-election and partisan advantage without worry for those yet to be born. Ditto for the president.

The federal government has become a bumptious Leviathan, not a government of limited powers as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Federal officials and the public errantly assume everything is permitted to Congress unless constitutionally prohibited, whereas the Constitution stipulates Congress is without authority unless conferred by Article I. The president and Congress have teamed to regulate education, prescription drugs for the elderly, partial-birth abortion, and even the fate of Terri Schiavo under Florida statutes. Nothing is too insignificant for federal spending or regulation.

The federal budget approaches $3 trillion. President Bush is supporting a constitutional amendment to prohibit states from recognizing same-sex “marriages,” and attempted to void Oregon’s right-to-die statute.

State governors, legislators and the public have accepted the massive federal encroachments on traditional state prerogatives with complacency. Few if any appreciate the value of state experimentation in addressing vexing social issues and the check on state folly derived from the freedom of businesses and citizens to leave for more friendly jurisdictions.

As James Madison observed in Federalist 55, a republican government presupposes a high degree of virtue among officeholders and citizens. Honesty is the coin of any democratic realm. Yet Congress is beset by corruption and hypocrisy. Jack Abramoff is the tip of the iceberg.

Ethics committees and lobbying reform are jokes. Facts are routinely manipulated for partisan gain. The White House is no better. Deception over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program and leaks of classified information are emblematic.

School curricula must be reformed by local educators to teach political history and philosophy to save the United States from the fate of the Roman Republic as trenchantly chronicled by Edward Gibbon. No student should graduate from college without a reasonable mastery of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Sam Johnson, Burke, John Stuart Mill, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Political enlightenment will follow like day from night.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.

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