The constitution and the necessity of dirty words

Published 7:56 pm Friday, September 24, 2010

Country music star Aaron Tippin, who once sang “you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything,” captured in that song what we expect out of our politicians.

Americans typically like politicians with backbones, with resolve, with a strength of spirit that will not yield to whims or to cash donations.

We like our public servants to possess a conviction that will not bend and a moral compass that will not waver.

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Compromise, then, is a dirty word.

The truth is, though, there would be no constitution without compromise.

The Founders arrived in Philadelphia with common goals but with many different backgrounds. Some came from large states, some from small ones. Some came from slave states, some from non-slave states.

Despite their differences in political philosophy, they found room to compromise. Through great debate, a hot summer and hotter tempers, they compromised. They had to—for, through all the votes, only one very important item was approved in a unanimous vote.

Let’s return to that in a second.

Jack N. Rakove, in his book “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” states that the Constitutional Convention was “a cumulative process of bargaining and compromise in which a rigid adherence to principle yielded to the pragmatic tests of reaching agreement and building coalitions” (15).

What Rakove describes is a situation in which any side at any time could have bolted the convention in disgust or boycott. What occurred, however, was a series of compromises between North and South, between small states and large states, and between slave and free states that allowed the convention to proceed.

These were great debates—not just for that age but for all the ages.

Despite the varied backgrounds, priorities, strong personalities and opinions of these great debaters, one notable exception of the contention that subsisted at the Convention exists—the unanimous vote involving the “necessary and proper” clause.

No compromise was needed. All voted yes. This very fact indicates that the Founders had no idea that this clause would be used to one day serve as the Constitutional equivalent of a blank check.

So what is this “necessary and proper” clause?

A very basic explanation of this “elastic clause” would be this: If it is necessary and proper for a government to do something—then this clause, according to those who interpret it so, says that the government can do it.

There are two problems with this, though.

The first problem, quite simply, is that few agree on neither the necessity nor the properness of government actions, thus the current animus between Democrats and Republicans.

The second problem is that this elasticity doesn’t mesh with the 10th Amendment, which states that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states.

Michael Kirkland