Thursday, May 04, 2006

Congressional Heros: Then and Now

America’s founders had some pretty specific ideas regarding the authority of government. They specifically outlined the things the federal government had the authority to do and specifically said anything not authorized by the Constitution was outside the scope of government power.

“Our tenet ever was,” said Thomas Jefferson, “that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant that they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action.”

Of course our federal government does not even resemble the one intended by our founders. Too many generations of politicians have discovered the ability to secure their place in power by using the money of their constituents to buy votes. However, there have been a few (too few) bright spots.

Davy Crockett (pictured at right) was a congressman from Tennessee when a bill appropriating money to benefit the widow of a distinguished naval officer was introduced on the floor of the House. Crockett, understanding the Constitution gave no such authority to Congress, stood up and said the following:

"Mr. Speaker--I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I have never heard that the government was in arrears to him.

"Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week's pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks."

Perhaps Crockett was reminded of the words of James Madison, who said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Maybe Crockett just understood the limitations of government. In either case his stand was a brief, but very bright spot, in the history of Congress. He was, and remains, a congressional hero.

Today I know of at least one such congressional hero. Ron Paul (pictured at right), a congressman from Texas, continues to make similar stands. Most recently he talked about what he calls, “True foreign aid.” Like Crockett before him, Paul’s convictions about the proper role of government are reminiscent of our founders. He, too, is a congressional hero. Too bad there aren’t more like him.

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