This week, PBS premiered part one of a four-part series on the Constitution. In it, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, rode around America astride a decked-out flag motorcycle to investigate the Constitution in modern America. And the first leg of his journey was surprisingly good.
With a backdrop of spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, Sagal highlights the vitality of the Constitution, exploring federalism in our unique republic.
Some great highlights:
- The Constitution is more than a document; it’s a way of life. In his ride, Sagal sees the Constitution everywhere: Citizens engage in policy debates, advocate for state laws, run businesses, shoot guns, and even flush toilets. The last thing James Madison (a.k.a. the Father of the Constitution) wanted for his handwork was for it to be a piece of paper that is never heeded. The Constitution is about how we live.
- The Constitution was revolutionary. The Constitution was the “hinge of history,” according to law professor Akhil Amar. Prior to the Constitution, America was a collection of potentially adversarial states. The Constitution knit them together into a flourishing nation of diverse self-governing states. It’s no wonder that the Constitution is the longest-lasting, most-imitated Constitution known to mankind.
- The federal government has limits. “The federal government could raise an army to invade Canada,” Sagal explains, “but it can’t arrest people for littering or give them a parking ticket.” That’s the beauty of enumerated powers. The Constitution divides powers vertically between state governments, and the federal government and further subdivides federal powers between three co-equal branches of the federal government. The federal government can perform a certain set of functions, but the states retain most power.
But there are problems with Sagal’s presentation.
First, he admits that our Constitution limits the federal government, but he can’t exactly say what those limits are. Take federal regulations.
Sagal reveals that they are overwhelming and often absurd. Regulations call milk “oil” (when spilled) and allow only licensed dentists to transport dentures (which could theoretically keep Grandma from taking a Sunday drive).
But he never ponders whether the regulations are suitable for self-governing citizens or are steadily transforming us into subjects of an administrative state. Nor does he address the greatest problem with federal regulations: that they are laws made by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.
Instead Sagal asks: “Is the federal government going too far, or do these regulations serve a purpose?” This is a false dichotomy. Regulation may indeed have a legitimate purpose yet still be beyond the delegated powers of government.
Second, Sagal celebrates the big things that only a federal government can do. He makes much of the Hoover Dam, an impressive project completed during the Great Depression. But he never asks why today’s federal government can’t build anything like it.
Last year, columnist Charles Krauthammer challenged readers: “Name one thing of any note created by Obama’s Niagara of borrowed money. A modernized electric grid? Ports dredged to receive the larger ships soon to traverse a widened Panama Canal? Nothing of the sort.” All he could think of was Solyndra.
Today’s federal projects, from Boston’s “Big Dig” to D.C.’s Capitol Visitors Center to the Air Force’s tanker program, take years longer than expected and cost substantially more than they’re budgeted for. A government truly limited by the Constitution would be smaller and much more effective.
But let’s cut Sagal some slack. The Constitution is vital, vast, and deeply engrained in our way of life. And he has miles to go and three episodes left to find something the Constitution forbids.