It is astounding how much American politicians and the American public have lost sight of the idea of “national purpose” in federal policy. Because of a fundamental change in how the public views government, and a massive departure from the vision of the Founding Fathers, private and local interests now feed at will from the national public trough.
Sadly, both parties are guilty of incredible malfeasance in the use of public money. Republican complicity with federal overspending has once again been thrown into sharp relief with the release of a report showing that the American Conservative Union has been lobbying to ensure that budget cuts do not extend to national defense and transportation contracts of their liking. Although the ACU’s excuse is that funding of national defense is a part of the Constitution, it is ignoring both the financial strain of bloated budgets and the limits that past generations of American statesmen placed on federal government spending, even on Constitutional projects.
For instance, Andrew Jackson, who believed strongly in limited government as well as the policy of “peace through strength,” dramatically vetoed the massive Maysville Road project in Kentucky because he believed it was bad fiscal policy, unconstitutional and would lead to an explosion of future wasteful spending. Jackson didn’t want to weaken national defense, but he did try to control government spending that was passed under the guise of national interest and defense, but was really a money grab by local and state politicians.
Jackson explained his reasoning for stopping local spending projects at the end of his veto message:
The grounds upon which I have given my assent to appropriations for the construction of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, public piers, and the removal of sand bars, sawyers, and other temporary or partial impediments in our navigable rivers and harbors, and with which many of the provisions of this bill correspond, have been so fully stated that I trust a repetition of them is unnecessary. Had there been incorporated in the bill no provisions for works of a different description, depending on principles which extend the power of making appropriations to every object which the discretion of the Government may select, and losing sight of the distinctions between national and local character which I had stated would be my future guide on the subject, I should have cheerfully signed the bill.
Jackson certainly wasn’t alone in vetoing massive spending projects on the basis of a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a limited government philosophy. Many other 19th century presidents also used their veto power to restrain Congress’s penchant for superfluous local spending that serves no greater good than to help members’ own districts and aid in re-election.
James Madison’s veto of the “Bonus Bill” in 1817 might be the most illustrative in how to get spending at both the national and local level under control. Madison’s veto, which denied funds to the Erie Canal infrastructure project, was a bold declaration of what he believed to be the limits of the federal government’s spending power.
Madison believed that the bill would set a terrible precedent for dramatically enlarging the role of the federal government and distending the limits of the Constitution. Unfortunately, due to over a century of Progressive policymaking and ideas we have crossed the Constitutional Rubicon. The power of the federal government has been unleashed and special interests reign.
It must be pointed out that the Erie Canal became the most successful infrastructure project in American history, and that it truly turned New York into the Empire State, the economic heart of the United States. Without a dollar of federal money, the Erie Canal, once called the “eighth wonder of the world,” was finished early and under budget. How many of even the simplest government projects can boast of similar success to the massively complex canal built in the early 19th century?
Compare the success of the state-funded Erie Canal to the California high speed rail project, which after over a decade of planning has still failed to lay down a single piece of track. The mostly useless project survives because of massive guarantees of federal money but will bleed money if it ever actually gets completed. If California were required to financially sink or swim on its own the project probably would have been killed years ago.
The point is that the merit of any particular project is best assessed by those who are most directly affected by its success and funding needs. Federalizing every project makes Americans less sensitive to the cost of specific projects and less motivated to put the pressure on representatives to get them done. The system rewards politicians and special interests, but hurts the American people and lessens the ability of the government at both the state and federal level to do its job properly.
The odds are low that lawmakers and members of Congress will change their attitude toward the Constitution and acknowledge the need for “national purpose” in national legislation. Even those who say they believe in limited government have a hard time sticking to principles when the short-term payoff of fiscal recklessness is so good.
One possible remedy to restore national purpose to law making would be to create a line-item veto for the president, the only nationally-elected office. It would allow the president to veto specific pieces of legislation without having to veto the entire thing. The president had this power for a short time when the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 was passed, and a number of pork projects were eliminated, but the law was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The House of Representatives attempted to pass a similar law again in 2011, but it died in the Senate.
A line-item veto may in fact require a constitutional amendment, but it could be a bipartisan way to solve a bipartisan problem and would restore balance to our government.