Perhaps the most famous words spoken on the day we commemorate this week — September 17, 1787 — were those of Benjamin Franklin. After the Constitution had been signed and the convention adjourned, Franklin was asked by a group of curious Philadelphians gathered outside Independence Hall what type of government the delegates had created. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
This pithy response — more of a challenge than an answer — is so memorable and quotable that we tend to repeat it more often than we pause to reflect on its meaning. So on the 229th anniversary of Mr. Franklin’s famous proclamation, it’s worth asking ourselves: What exactly does it take to “keep” the American republic?
To my mind, one of the best answers to this question was given by Abraham Lincoln in an address he delivered in 1838, at the ripe old age of 28, to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The subject of the speech was “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” which he described as the central and perennial task of republican citizenship.
Lincoln said that every generation of Americans has the responsibility to pass along to its descendants the “political edifice of liberty and equal rights” that had been established by the nation’s Founders — our “hardy, brave, and patriotic […] ancestors.” He insisted that this process of perpetuation — the project of “keeping” the republic — would succeed only if the American people respected the nation’s laws and viewed the government with affection, rather than suspicion or derision.
The “strongest bulwark of any Government” is “the attachment of the People,” Lincoln declared. If “the laws be continually despised and disregarded,” and if the people become estranged from their public institutions, losing trust in the officials charged with making and enforcing the law, “this Government cannot last.”
Lincoln was right. At the heart of the American Republic is a social compact based on mutual trust between the people and the representatives they elect to administer government on their behalf. Government officials are given power to make and enforce the laws on the condition that they respect and remain accountable to the interests and concerns of the people they represent.
The public’s trust in government can’t be blind. It is made possible by clear lines of accountability that connect the people to policy and policymakers. Citizens must first be able to identify the government officials responsible for unpopular policies, and then be empowered to change those policies by voting those officials out of office. This is why the framers of our Constitution made the most powerful branch of the federal government — Congress — also the most accountable to the people.
But today, these lines of accountability — and the public trust that they enable — have been corroded by the Administrative State: the vast array of rule-writing departments, agencies and bureaus that make up the federal government’s Executive Branch. The “laws” they write — tens of thousands of pages of dos and don’ts every year — are not enacted by the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Instead, they are imposed unilaterally by bureaucrats who never stand for election and, in most cases, whose names the American people will never know.
What’s worse, much of the lawmaking power now exercised by the Executive Branch was intentionally given away by members of Congress, over the course of decades, to escape the hard work and stringent accountability inherent in constitutional lawmaking.
No wonder only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government always or most of the time — meaning that 81 percent don’t!
Following Abraham Lincoln, I believe this crisis of confidence in America today is a grave threat to our ability to preserve our public institutions for the next generation. That’s why, earlier this year, I launched the Article I Project — a new network of policymakers working together to develop a legislative agenda that will reclaim Congress’s constitutional lawmaking powers that today are being improperly exercised by the Executive Branch and thereby restore the democratic accountability on which our system of government depends.
If we are to “keep” our republic, as Benjamin Franklin challenged us to do 229 years ago, we must rebuild the American people’s trust in the nation’s public institutions. And the only way to do that is by finally making Congress responsible again — both in the sense of discharging its constitutional duties and making itself accountable for the consequences.
• Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In May, he and six other members of Congress released a policy brief called, “Leashing Leviathan: The Case for a Congressional Regulatory Budget,” to highlight the need for legislative and regulatory reform.