What It Was All About

On this, the 150th anniversary of the second day of the War Between the States, let us pause to reflect what it was all about. But this has been done so many time before, you say. Yes, but we still take opportunities like great round number anniversaries to reflect. However, it is also relevant because of the various civil wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is further relevant because of the cadre of newly elected officials in Washington who align themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The War of Northern Aggression, or as it is sometimes called, Mr. Lincoln’s War, was about one thing. Political self-determination. There is no question that the issue of slavery divided the country, but the war wasn’t about what divided the country. It was about what to do with a divided country. And it is all well and good to look back with 20/20 hindsight and make the moral judgement that the lives of 600,000 men and boys was worth the speeding up of the emancipation process, thus laying the groundwork for the hostility of many whites toward blacks for the next hundred years. However, justifying the war by the result does not explain why it happened in the first place.

Mr Lincoln was only interested in one thing. His single goal was to save the Union. A friend reminded me recently of his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The turn of phrase “save the Union” sounds very noble, but what does it mean? It means that people who freely chose to associate themselves in a particular political arrangement were no longer free to change that arrangement. They bound future generations in perpetuity.  In Mr Lincoln’s view, the Constitution abrogated to words of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Mr Lincoln had no regard whatsoever for the consent of the governed. The men of the Confederacy were not anarchists.  They had lawfully constituted and constitutional state governments. This was not good enough. Thousands upon thousands of young men were marched to their deaths to restore the national authority – to enforce at the point of a bayonet that Washington DC, not Montgomery or Jackson or Little Rock or Nashville or Austin or Richmond, was the source of civil authority.

This was made all the clearer during the so-called Reconstruction, when the Southern States, which according to the Northern States had never (and could have never) left the indivisible Union, were run as military departments. Their constitutional governments were suspended until such a time as it was determined that they had been re-created in the way the victors demanded.

Since this time, the power of the national authority has been steadily increased. The Supreme Court often gets the blame for this, but all the branches of government have played their part. Almost every day I come across provisions in the U.S. Code that should be left to the States. And those who decry the executive acts of the Obama administration overlook decades of incursions and usurpations of state sovereignty but administrations of both parties.

At the height of the hypocrisy is the support for self-determination in other countries by a government that refuses to follow its own Constitution and limit itself to specifically delegated powers. This is the legacy of the War Between the States.

Why We Don’t Need a 28th Amendment

I have been getting emails to pass on showing my support for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Now there are Facebook groups supporting this “proposed” 28th Amendment. I’ve gotten several invitations for those, too.  I delete chain mail, no matter how glurgy and heartrending on the one hand or politically outraged on the other. But this is one of those viral ideas that needs some sense slapped into it.

The good people at snopes.com have tried, but as I found when I looked at the discussion boards of one of these Facebook groups, they can’t be trusted because, in the words of one poster, “Snopes is run by a couple who are left-leaning Obama supporters. Not legitimate. Depends on what side of the issue you would like to believe is accurate.”

Now I seriously doubt that anyone who knows me or who has read anything I’ve written would call me left-leaning or an Obama supporter. But what I do know is that there are conservatives that assume any fact that does not support their agenda is part of the vast left-wing conspiracy. The sad fact is that our side has it’s own share of idiots. There are as many people swayed by the flag-waving and anti-government rhetoric as there are those who think everyone ought to be forced to pay for the less fortunate and save the polar bears.

Now let’s just look at this “proposed” amendment:

Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators and Representatives and all other branches of the Government; and, Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and Representatives and all other branches of the Government that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.

When I first read this, I realised immediately that the language was so vague as to be unenforceable. It doesn’t actually mean anything. Despite the Facebook group saying, “It avoids all the 18th century formal and ‘legalize’ language, and is simple to understand and straight forward,” it is neither simple to understand nor strightforward, despite the lack of “legalize” language. However, it does appear popular with those who lack the ability to write using proper vocabulary and grammar. Not a good sign.

With all the justification for this amendment that has been sent out with it, it appears that the motivation for it is the idea that members of Congress exempt themselves from legislation that applies to everyone else. This includes the myths that Congresspersons get their congressional salaries for life, that they don’t pay social security tax, and that they are “exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harrasment”. Of course the thing that spurred this into motion was that they exempted themselves from the provisions of the health care reform bill.

None of these things are true. I find the strangest of these to be the exemption from fear of prosecution for sexual harrasment. This implies that not only are Congresspersons somehow more prone to sexual harrasment than other people, but that they wanted to make sure they were free to do so. Beyond these patently ridiculous propositions, no one is prosecuted for sexual harrasment. It is a civil matter. People are sued for sexual harrasment. Congresscritters could already be sued for sexual harrasment as a tort before the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. Now there is a specific statutory right to sue.

Some of the ranting and raving in the Facebook group is funny, if sad. One man said, “So snopes is making this mostly false. What kind of answer is that? It is a fact that Congress does pay themselves after they leave office.” Sorry, snopes didn’t make it false. They just showed how it was false. Most companies have a pension plan so that people get paid after they leave their employment. There are provisions for the pensions of all federal employees, just like there are for state employees. And just like other pension plans, they contribute to it out of their salary and if they don’t stay on the job very long, they don’t get a very big pension.

The same person said, “Poli means many and tics are blood suckers it may sound stupid but it is reality.” No, it is not reality, but he is right, it does sound stupid. About as stupid as a woman on the same thread who said, “We as a mostly nieve and willlingly uneducated ppl have let this situation creep up on us.”  I don’t know if I would attribute that to everyone else, but she did provide evidence that the uneducated bit applies to her.

But back to our proposed amendment. . . The last clause is the more useless. “Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and Representatives” unless it applies equally to everyone else. Does this mean that when they set the salaries for members of Congress, they have to give everyone else in the country the same salary? Since Congresspeople can participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System, they have to let every citizen join the FERS?

Where it really gets silly is the bit about “no law that applies to . . . all other branches of the Government that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.” So when the Secret Service is authorised by law to protect the President and other member of the Executive Branch and certain members of their families, does this mean that every citizen is entitled to Secret Service protection? Or when the law says that the Department of Agriculture must inspect meat, does this mean that every citizen can (or perhaps must) inspect all meat produced? Or since the US Treasury is authorised by law to print currency, is every citizen authorised to print currency? Or how about the Department of State, which is the part of the executive branch charged with carrying out foreign policy and representing the United States to foreign governments. Is everyone entitled to negoitate with foreign governments on behalf of the American people?  There are an infinite  number of examples of how ridiculous this is.

So no, we don’t need a 28th Amendment to limit Congress, especially one as useless a current viral proposition. The biggest limit on Congress is already in the Constitution. They are elected. Don’t like a particular member? Don’t vote for them. What usually happens is the people want to limit somebody else’s Congressman. You know what? They don’t represent you. If people in another state or another district make a bad decision, too bad. It is the nature of representative democracy.

When Good News is Bad News

The good news: David Souter is leaving the SCOTUS. The bad news: Barack Obama is choosing his replacement. The worse news: he has a rubber stamp Senate to confirm her. I’m predicting the same as everyone else. He will choose an woman from an ethnic minority. Or as even liberal Time magazine says, “White men need not apply.”

I don’t care whether care whether the new justice is a man or a woman. I don’t care what their ethnic background is. What I do care about is the box-ticking exercise of thinking this is important. On one level care about the affirmative action approach to filling one of the nine most important judicial seats in the land. That is a very poor crtieria.

But the much more important thing it that it reflects a much more troubling aspect of Obama’s judicial philosophy.  “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” This sounds so wonderful and heartwarming.

We need someone who will bend and change the law to make people happy. We need unelected judges to override elected legislators in making law. We need to change the meaning of the Constitution because we feel sorry for people.  If we get a cultural and gender cross-section on the Court, they can represent the people in choosing what the Constitution should become – more white men are more likely to tell us what it is.

If the law cannot be changed on a case-by-case basis, then we are stuck with equality under the law. That makes it much more difficult to favour minorities or special interest groups, especially ones we for whom we feel sorry because we don’t think they have been as materially prosperous. Enlightened justices needs to protect and promote behaviour that legislators, encumbered as they are by the will of the people, won’t endorse.

I want to say in closing that I don’t have anything against David Souter personally. I am very disappointed that he has shifted from the conservative to liberal side of the Court. That’s why I wish I could be glad to see him go. As an individual, he has always been an outstanding example of public service.