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Constitutional Convenience

How power too often trumps principle in reading our nation's founding document

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CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

With the dramatic shift of power in the White House, I've seen many of my Democratic friends suddenly rediscover the 10th Amendment, which articulates the idea that there are certain powers that are reserved to the states or the people. Increasingly, along these lines, I see liberals arguing for a restrained federal government and reinvigorated experimentation at the state and local level.

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"Go ahead," I see them writing on Facebook, "and cut federal taxes for the rich. We'll raise it in our 'Blue' state and use it to fund bold progressive policies. We'll be more successful than ever, and screw the people who live in states who voted for Trump. They'll get what they deserve."

It's an argument I am well familiar with from my days in rural grange halls. For decades, all conservatives have wanted is for the feds to leave them alone. If liberals wanted to experiment with their "wacky ideas" where they lived, then fine, but leave them out of it.

But these days, conservatives in my social media feed have similarly suddenly rediscovered parts of our Constitution, specifically Article II, which spells out the powers of the Presidency. They're loving this governing by executive orders, aghast that any court might dare intervene. They just won an election, and everyone just needs to respect that, by George!

Sadly, I've been familiar with this particular hypocrisy since well before the election. Serving on Sandpoint's city council, I was often dismayed to see the Idaho Legislature complain, on the one hand, about federal laws tying their hands and, on the other, aggressively reducing the ability of other elected officials to make decisions at the local level.

Democratic officials from other cities were and are often fond of pointing this out, but they shared in the same hypocrisy. As they asked for local control in their cities, they were also happy to push for the federal government to become more muscular in handing down ultimatums to those same state legislators.

Our founding document should be read the same way, regardless of who is in power. We shouldn't selectively cheerlead for the balance of powers based on whether they help us achieve our policy ends. The Constitution, our democracy and our institutions are greater than petty politics — or at least they should be.

And sometimes, despite the shifting allegations of exactly who is doing the overreaching, they are.

When a Republican-appointed federal judge in Seattle halted the Trump administration's initial ban on Muslim immigrants last month, he did so citing the same legal principles that had caused judges in Texas to block the Obama administration's executive actions on immigration. Proving, that at least in one courtroom, the Constitution applies evenly to each administration, regardless of ideology.

But of course, policies aren't just abstract principles where consistency is necessarily the highest end. They have a concrete impact on people's lives and, ultimately, that's what draws many of us to engaging in politics in the first place — the opportunity to do good.

My suggestion, then, is that we should consider how government really ought to work, not only when we are in power, but also when we are out of power. We need to consider that the same structures that stop us from doing what we believe to be good when we have power, stop those we disagree with from undoing perceived good when we don't. Then we should fight for those structures.

For me, this means a consistent belief in robust local government, with a federal government that primarily focuses on protecting individual rights and civil liberties. Others may find a different balance, but what's important is that it is one you can respect — win or lose. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.

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