Constitution? What Constitution?

Republican congressman Joe Barton of Texas did something politically foolish last week, but constitutionally sound. In a hearing with BP executives, Barton used the word “shakedown” to describe what the Obama administration had done to the company. He then offered an apology for the way in which BP had been treated.

That set off a firestorm, not just among Democrats but within his own Republican party. Pressure was so intense that he was forced that same day to apologize for his apology. If he hadn’t done so, he was told he would lose his leadership role in the party.

Now, Barton’s wording was politically foolish. If he had simply avoided the word “apology” as applied to BP, no one would have said much of anything. Yet a tin ear politically does not indicate a wrong view of the Constitution. In that regard, Barton made a valid constitutional point.

What point is that? An excellent essay by scholar Thomas Sowell has explained it clearly. Sowell talks about how even though Obama’s poll numbers are going down, it’s only because people disagree with some of his policies; very few understand the more foundational issue—“the damage being done to the fundamental structure of this nation.”

Sowell then raises the question that rarely is raised anymore:

Just where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that a president has the authority to extract vast sums of money from a private enterprise and distribute it as he sees fit to whomever he deems worthy of compensation?

The short answer is short indeed: nowhere.

Of course Sowell is talking about the $20 billion fund that Obama extracted from BP. We’re supposed to be a government of laws, not just executive decisions that make unconstitutional demands. Sowell is correct when he notes,

But the Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without “due process of law.” Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.

With vastly expanded powers of government available at the discretion of politicians and bureaucrats, private individuals and organizations can be forced into accepting the imposition of powers that were never granted to the government by the Constitution.

If you believe that the end justifies the means, then you don’t believe in constitutional government. Without constitutional government, freedom cannot endure. There will always be a “crisis” — which, as the president’s chief of staff has said, cannot be allowed to “go to waste” as an opportunity to expand the government’s power.

This has happened before in American history. When I tell students that during the Great Depression FDR ordered all Americans to turn in their gold to the government, they can’t believe such a thing ever occurred. FDR did that purely by executive order; he certainly had no constitutional authority to do so.

My students are now living in a time that is making FDR’s power moves seem trifling in comparison. FDR never took control of auto companies; FDR didn’t take over 1/6 of the American economy via the healthcare route.

These are dangerous times for the survival of constitutionalism and the rule of law. We have come to this place slowly, but deliberately, like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water that doesn’t realize he will soon be cooked. The last year and a half, however, has seen the heat turned up significantly. Perhaps that will be Obama’s undoing—he has moved so quickly that people are finally awakening to the danger.

Will enough citizens awaken in time to avert disaster? November will tell.