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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2000 /28 Shevat, 5760

Walter Williams

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Should the oath of office be changed? --
MEMBERS OF CONGRESS take a sworn oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic" and "bear true faith and allegiance to the same." I'm guessing that if congressmen actually "bore true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution, we wouldn't have a federal budget of $1.7 trillion, not to mention those congressionally mandated 1.6 gallon flush toilets. Just about every one of the 535 members of Congress have contempt for or ignorance of our Constitution. What's worse is, if they knew they routinely violated their oaths of office, they wouldn't care. Getting elected and re-elected is what counts.

In 1997, Congressman John Shadegg, R-Arizona, introduced the Enumerated Powers Act, H.R. 292. Basically, the act says that Congress must heed the limitations placed on it by the Constitution: The federal government cannot do anything that the Constitution does not authorize it to do.

Two things. You'd wonder why the Enumerated Powers Act would be necessary in the first place. After all, congressmen swore to uphold the Constitution. Second, if we're naive enough to think congressmen respect our Constitution, we'd see them jumping at the opportunity to support the Enumerated Powers Act.

Of course they didn't, but there was a tiny step toward the goal of getting Congress to obey the Constitution. The 105th House of Representatives adopted the following rule: "Each report of a committee on a bill or joint resolution of a public character shall include a statement citing the specific powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the law proposed by the bill or joint resolution."

The response was predictable. Congressmen cite the "general welfare" clause in the Constitution as giving them authority to pass laws dealing with education, farm handouts, student loans, foreign aid and fighting street crime.

But here's what James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said about the "general welfare" clause: "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, The Government is no longer a limited one. ..." Thomas Jefferson echoed the same sentiment, saying that Congress does not possess "unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated. ..."

Moreover, if the Framers intended that the "general welfare" clause have the interpretation placed on it by today's congressmen, they could have spared themselves considerable grief and contentiousness during that hot, humid Philadelphia summer in 1787. They could have simply said: Congress shall promote the general welfare. That would be our Constitution. Forget all that business about separation of powers, prohibitions against Congress interfering with freedom of speech, assembly and religion, taking private property, and speedy trials. Congress would just promote what a majority of its members saw as the general welfare.

Let's at least be honest with ourselves. Since neither Congress, the president, nor our U.S. Supreme Court justices obey their oaths of office to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution, there are at least several alternatives. The first is to dispense with the pretense and get rid of our 200-year-plus oath. Substitute that oath with something like: I accept the office of congressman, or president, or justice of the court.

The second, and more preferable alternative is for we Americans to learn what the Constitution authorizes, and recognize that what it doesn't authorize is forbidden. Then we should force our representatives to obey the Constitution. Another alternative is for Americans to ignore acts of Congress that are constitutionally unauthorized.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate