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“A Republic — If We Can Keep It”

July 16, 2022 Frontpage No Comments


The recent Supreme Court decisions in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health and Carson v. Makin will profoundly change the political landscape in coming years.
Fifty state legislatures will witness countless battles as they reclaim responsibility for a host of powers — far beyond abortion — that have been usurped by the federal government.
Of course, the feds won’t give up those powers voluntarily.
Some history might explain why.
In July 1953, President Eisenhower asked my father to chair the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Congress had created the commission at Eisenhower’s request to satisfy the conservative Republicans who had supported Ike’s opponent, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, at the party’s 1952 convention.
Ike owed them.
When the president announced the appointment of the commission’s members, he described its work as “an historic undertaking: the elimination of frictions, duplications and waste from Federal-state relations; the clear definition of lines of Governmental authority in our nation; the increase in efficiency in a multitude of Governmental programs vital to the welfare of all Americans.”
Well, that’s what Ike said. As far as my father was concerned, the goal was to return to the states and to the people their constitutional powers that the federal government had seized during the Roosevelt years of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War.
Stolen. Illegally and unconstitutionally.
More history: It had all happened with the support of America’s Catholic bishops.

Present At The Creation

In 1933, our bishops were so excited about the New Deal that they appointed Msgr. John A. Ryan as their point man to cheer Roosevelt on.
Ryan, a Minnesota farm boy made good, was ahead of his time. His official bio recounts how in 1909, he advocated “a legal minimum wage, an eight-hour limit on the workday, protective legislation for women and children, protection for union picketing and boycotting, unemployment insurance, provision against accident, illness, and old age, municipal housing, public ownership of utilities, public ownership of mines and forests, control of monopolies, and an income tax.”
Ryan’s model might have been suitable for a socialist European country at the time, but it clashed with the fundamental American principles of limited government and separation of powers.
Well, that didn’t matter. The bishops were allies of the Democrats since the days of Woodrow Wilson and Cardinal Gibbons, and Msgr. Ryan had his marching orders.
He supported Roosevelt’s agenda so fervently that Time Magazine called him “The Right Reverend New Dealer.”
Our late colleague Paul Likoudis once discovered a speech that bishops’ spokesman Bishop Joseph Hurley of St. Augustine had delivered in a national broadcast on July 11, 1941. In that address, Hurley insisted that President Roosevelt, as commander in chief, rather than Congress, should “decide whether and when USA should enter the war against Germany.”
Conclusion: Msgr. Ryan and Bishop Hurley might have loved FDR, but they were clueless about the Constitution.
In the meantime, Dad had been teaching constitutional law at Notre Dame since 1924. By the mid-1930s he had caught on: FDR had betrayed not only the Constitution, but also the Democrats’ conservative party platform of 1932.
In fact, by 1937, Roosevelt was so zealously pursuing Ryan’s agenda to expand the federal government that he threatened to pack the Supreme Court to do it.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
So in 1953, Dad was fully prepared to lead Ike’s commission to its proper goal.
And it was popular. Remember, Ike appointed this commission more than a decade before LBJ launched his “Great Society” programs that later spawned so much federal power at the expense of the states.
In July 1953, politicians of both parties recognized that the unchecked expansion of the Roosevelt-Truman years posed a clear and present danger to the balance of powers between the states and the federal government. Like many of them, my father was a Democrat, and, like countless other Democrats back then, he was more conservative than many Republicans.
A painful reminder: Among the liberals was California Republican Gov. Earl Warren, who had engineered the move that wrested the 1952 GOP nomination from Bob Taft at the GOP Convention. Ike would repay Warren with his first Supreme Court nomination, and the rest is history.
Well, popular support or no, Washington didn’t like the notion of playing second fiddle to the states, so before long Ike fired Dad and appointed a White House staffer to replace him. When the commission dissolved in 1955, its final report was a nothingburger. It members concluded that if states couldn’t handle their responsibilities, well, the federal government has to step in.
And to no one’s surprise, Eisenhower continued and expanded the Roosevelt programs throughout his administration.

Old Habits Die Hard. Especially The Bad Ones

While the commission was a flop, its final report featured a fatal error that was central to the failure of the entire project. It flows from a misunderstanding of what Catholics call the principle of subsidiarity. When it infects politics, it reaps disaster.
In brief, the principle of subsidiarity holds that human affairs are best handled at the lowest possible level. Decisions should be made closest to the persons involved.
The description in the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with this:
“The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good’” (CCC, n. 1883).
As Catholics, we’re familiar with how it works in the Church: A serious issue arises at the parish. If it can’t be handled there, it goes to the ordinary, then to the metropolitan archbishop, and ultimately, if all else fails, to Rome. Ultimately, the Pope has the last guess.
But that’s not how it works in our political system under the United States Constitution.
If a county in Virginia has an issue, the state handles it.
But here we must consult the Constitution: If the state can’t handle the issue, it doesn’t automatically belong to the federal government to deal with it.
In fact, Eisenhower’s Commission on Intergovernmental Relations was formed precisely because the federal government had interfered with or usurped outright all too many powers that are specifically reserved to the state or to the people.
“But the state isn’t solving the problem,” complains the federal interloper. “So we have to get involved.”
No they don’t. And here arises the vital distinction between a problem and a condition.
“How much is 3 +3?” is a question that states a mathematical problem with one correct answer: six.
The question, “How do we handle bad people?” addresses not a problem, in the proper sense, but a condition.
Evil and the Fall of Man are problems, yes, but they are not problems to be solved, at least in this life. They are conditions that we are called on to live with.
If a state doesn’t perfectly handle an issue that results from the human condition, and the Constitution does not expressly grant the power to deal with that issue to the federal government, then the state is stuck with it.
Dear Federal Government: No Trespassing!
With Dobbs, the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is a problem to be addressed by the states, period.
The principle undoubtedly applies to countless other issues as well.
And the feds won’t take it lying down.
As soon as the Dobbs decision came down, Joe Biden promised he would use his executive powers to fight it. The same week, Nancy Pelosi called for an end of the filibuster, an age-old Senate rule, “So that we can restore women’s fundamental rights.”
For them, “democracy” trumps the Constitution every time.
And here’s a point to ponder: Isn’t it wonderful that JFK ended once and for all of America’s anti-Catholic bias so “devout Catholics” like Joe and Nancy could rise to national leadership positions in the Land of the Free?

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