I constantly see opinions from conservative commentators who talk about the urgent need to vote Barack Obama out of office and elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The reasoning goes that Republicans are inherently better at all the things that conservatives value, with one primary grievance being the Democrats’ disregard for the Constitution.However, very recent events show that most Republicans, even those identified with the Tea Party, are not really any better at adhering to the Constitution than are Democrats.
Last week the House Republicans had the opportunity to modify the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to clear up language that could be construed as giving the President the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens without charging them with a crime. Americans from across the political spectrum, realizing the danger of this legislation, have cried out in opposition to the NDAA.
To answer these concerns Representatives Adam Smith (D-WA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) introduced legislation to ensure that no American citizens could be held without charges or due process under the NDAA.
Immediately, allegedly conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal came out in opposition to this legislation. Why? Well, in their reasoning, this amendment to the NDAA would weaken the country’s national security because it would deny the President the authority to use the military to detain terrorists, a responsibility the military doesn’t even want says Lt. General Harry Soyster.
They also claim that no American citizens would ever be held under the act, claiming that the language clearly refers only to terrorists. In reality the actual language is much less clear about who can be detained and why. The NDAA contains terms like “associated forces”, “substantially supports” and “belligerent acts”, terms that are so ill-defined that they could easily be misinterpreted, intentionally or not, to support indefinitely detaining American citizens.
Remember, there is also the problem that someone can be detained merely by being accused of violating these poorly defined phrases, and held indefinitely without charges actually being filed. The same people who in their editorials show such distrust of the wisdom of the government in economic and social issues are somehow willing to trust that no president, present or future, would ever use this authorization incorrectly. This reasoning flies in the face of the most basic principles of the American Revolution.
Within Congress, representatives who were elected on the supposition of fidelity to the Constitution reacted in typical Washington fashion. Allen West, whose big-government voting record belies his inexplicable position as a Tea Party favorite, said in response to Smith-Amash, “We cannot look to guarantee those who seek to harm the U.S. the constitutional rights granted to Americans.” John McCain chimed in with similar sentiments.
Notice that nowhere in these statements is there an analysis of the constitutionality of the NDAA, nor is there any note of concern about the potential for the abuse of this power. This type of disregard for constitutionality echoes Nancy Pelosi’s infamous response to an inquiry about the constitutionality of Obamacare.
Both the commentators and the politicians would have you believe that anyone who points out causes for concern about the NDAA is merely an alarmist who sees a bogeyman behind every closet door. Similar comments were made about the Anti-Federalists during the debates on the ratification of the Constitution. People like Patrick Henry and later Thomas Jefferson had many concerns about the language of sections of the Constitution like the Commerce Clause and the General Welfare Clause. Men like James Wilson said these concerns and the call for a Bill of Rights were unfounded because the understanding of the law at that time would not permit these clauses to be used incorrectly.
What history has shown is that the concerns of the Anti-Federalists were fully justified because, either through intentional misinterpretations of these clauses or the loss of context, the wording of the Constitution has been misconstrued to allow for larger, more intrusive government than these men intended. The lesson for today is that even if everyone who currently supports the NDAA is doing so with pure motives they cannot guarantee that everyone in the future will use this act and its precedent purely.
In the end, the Smith-Amash amendment failed, 238-182. On this issue, with clear questions as to the constitutionality of the original legislation, only 17 Republicans voted in favor of the amendment. Paragons of the Tea Party movement like Michelle Bachmann and the aforementioned West voted no. They will doubtlessly run their re-election campaigns this year on their conservative credentials of limited government and original-intent constitutionalism.
Unfortunately there are too many voters who will run to the polls to pull the lever for any Republican in the false belief that they are striking a blow for the cause of freedom. These same voters will then wonder why nothing changes after they have secured victory for the “right people”.
People who are serious about a return to the principles of the American Revolution cannot simply pick and choose which issues are too important to follow the Constitution. Nor can we really determine the correct position to take without educating ourselves about our own history and the real facts surrounding these issues. Labels, party politics and propaganda are poor substitutes for principles and informed opinions.