The Tea Party movement and its millions of supporters have high hopes that the recent elections will rein in runaway government. While I endorse this objective, accomplishing it will be far more difficult than most people realize.
The Tea Partiers will have to contend with more than just a Big-Government president and Senate. They also face well-funded, well-connected, and well-entrenched special interests, plus a public that expects the officials they elect to shrink government and balance the federal budget only if it’s the other guy’s programs that get cut. Would-be reformers will also have to deal with the larger, permanent, unelected powers that aren’t accountable to the people.
The fact is that the United States isn’t as democratic as we’d like to think it is. We cherish the idea that the vox populi (the voice of the people) predominates over the will of privileged elites; that government is subordinate to the people (that it serves the people, rather than ruling them); that those in positions of governmental power should be accountable to the people from whom they derive their authority; that government is, essentially, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Is that the kind of system we have today? Let’s see:
Congress delegated its constitutional prerogative to be the guardians of our money to the Federal Reserve System. As I’ve previously discussed, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke & Co. exercise extraordinary discretionary powers that affect us all, yet Bernanke—arguably the second most powerful person in America—is unelected and unaccountable to the people.
Key rules by which we live—most notably, the right to legal abortion—were created by the Supreme Court, instead of by Congress. Regardless of your opinion about the Roe v. Wade decision, it doesn’t seem very democratic that five unelected, unaccountable justices should have the power to establish the rules by which we live.
Perhaps the greatest damage to democracy has been the tremendous amount of power amassed by “the permanent government,” the unelected federal bureaucrats.
Although the Constitution confers the legislative prerogative on Congress, in a typical year federal agencies will adopt more than 10 times as many legally binding rules as Congress passes laws (3,830 final rules compared to 285 laws in 2008, for example).
The Obamacare bill grants the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to determine or define what the legislation means no fewer than 1,697 times, according to a tabulation by Devon Herrick of the National Center for Policy Analysis.
This year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform bill gives power to unelected officials to decide which financial institutions live and die. It also adds power to the 115 federal agencies that already shared regulatory supervision over the financial system, and guarantees high-paying federal jobs to all employees of those agencies, despite their failure to protect us from the financial meltdown of recent years.
The EPA has a long tradition of exceeding its statutory authority and seems determined to further cripple the generation of electricity by imposing heavy penalties for carbon dioxide emissions, despite the crack-up of the global-warming myth and the refusal of Congress to restrict CO2 emissions.
Nobody seems to be able to stop the National Labor Relations Board from helping unions to avoid conducting business in a way that is transparent to rank-and-file workers.
These are just a few examples of the power wielded by unelected officials. They are part of what the late economist Milton Friedman termed an ”iron triangle:” Congress appropriates funds for federal agencies, who, in turn, give grants to citizen-activist groups that then actively lobby Congress for expansions of those programs. Thus is maintained what Friedman and his wife, Rose, labeled “the tyranny of the status quo.”
The influx of some new, Tea Party-supported legislators in Congress should make government marginally more democratic. At least we can count on an end to the imperial speakership of Nancy Pelosi, which was characterized by major legislation written behind closed doors (in the middle of the night), ram-rodding bills along partisan lines (before even Pelosi’s allies could read them), and refusing to heed the concerns of millions of Americans (by excluding their elected representatives from even having a perfunctory say in Congress’ proceedings). That is significant, though incremental, progress.
Will the Tea Party movement be able to tame Big Government in all its undemocratic manifestations? That isn’t likely on the strength of just one strong mid-term election. The task ahead is daunting.
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