We have long spoken of a dichotomy between the “establishment” wing of the Republican Party and its Tea Party-minded agitators. The unseating of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by Tea Party darling Dave Brat in 2014 offered the establishment a painful lesson: agitators will only be ignored for so long.
The American people delivered Part Two of this lesson last month to the dumbstruck political establishment of both parties. Part Two was simple: the class of “agitators” is much larger than you thought — it consists of working class Americans across the nation, and their patience has run out.
“Disrupt D.C. Part Two” seems to have hit home. Now both parties’ establishment wings are scrambling to figure out what this wave of populism means for their future and what adjustments must be made in light of the new political realities.
Because most D.C. politicians are more D.C. politicians than anything else, chances are good that they’ll get it wrong. I’ve spent plenty of time in those circles, of course, but since my retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2015, I’ve gone back to spending time among the grassroots of America. So I would like to offer my advice on how elected officials in both the states and the federal government can get it right, and how they must not get it wrong.
The American people want their power back. The American people no longer trust their government. They want to govern themselves again at the state and local level. They’re tired of watching a money-gobbling, D.C. machine crank out policies that don’t work, don’t help, and don’t line up with what the Constitution says the federal government should and should not be doing.
I have traveled the nation these past two years to encourage state legislators to trigger an Article V convention for proposing constitutional amendments to impose fiscal restraints on Washington, to restore the original meaning of constitutional limits on federal power, and to discuss the possibility of term limits for federal judges and other federal officials. In other words, I’m telling state legislators that America is desperate for them to use this one constitutional tool for re-balancing the power between the states, the national government, and the people.
Some of them get it, and eight states have already passed the Convention of States Project’s resolution. America needs 26 more states to take this meaningful stand against federal overreach. Article V is the only way to do it, because the type of federal overreach we have today is not the creature of a few rogue federal office-holders, but rather a systemic, institutionalized error in the working of our federal system that has been lent a patina of legitimacy by indulgent Supreme Court precedents. Washington, D.C. is broken and can only be repaired from the outside.
As I said, some state legislators get it. Others have missed the point. Some of them mistakenly believe that if we can just get Congress to balance its budget every year, the people will be pleased and the system will be fixed.
Please heed my warning: some politicians may believe this, but the people do not.
In fact, many grassroots activists I speak with are concerned that Congress may ultimately “balance the budget” on the backs of the taxpayers or the states. They may be right. Would members of Congress really choose to risk losing their seats by ending pork barrel spending or cutting funding for popular programs when they could instead just raise taxes or issue more unfunded mandates to the states?
The people aren’t excited by a balanced budget. What they want is balanced power. They want Congress, the president and the courts to do what they were given to do under the Constitution. And they want the state and local governments left alone to perform other government functions in response to the needs of their own people.
Sometimes activists are painted as extremists. But in this case, nothing could be more reasonable than what the American people are seeking. They are seeking a return to the rule of law. They want the three federal branches of government to be limited, again, to the powers that are legitimate for them to exercise under the Constitution. If we give them that, we take care of a whole host of ancillary problems, including the budget.
I will offer one final warning. The Right must not make the mistake of failing to implement the needed constitutional reforms simply because Republicans will be at the helm in Washington for the next few years. Precious few politicians — Democrats or Republicans — will restrain their own power while they are in office. And even if the Republicans do choose to exercise self-restraint for a few years, we cannot afford to leave our liberty at the whims of individuals by leaving the constitutional fences that safeguard them in a state of indefinite disrepair.
The people really do want to “Make America great again.” And America’s greatness can only be recaptured by returning to first principles of liberty and self-governance in a big way — through formal, corrective constitutional amendments adopted through the Article V process.
Dr. Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, is the Senior Advisor to the Convention of States Project.