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Lloyd Omdahl, Published January 31 2011

Omdahl: Another foolish exercise

As a longtime admirer of the U.S. Constitution, I was more than pleased to hear that the House of Representatives was taking the time to read the document at the opening session of Congress. In my academic work, I have spent more time studying the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the historic circumstances of the founding era than any other period of American history.

The reading of the Constitution, however, to protest the size of government was paradoxical, to say the least. While Congress hoped that the reading would place a new emphasis on limited government, the U.S. Constitution was not the right document to read because the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 was the most significant centralization of power in our history.

To put the Constitution in perspective, Congress should also have read the Articles of Confederation, the document that provided a “league of friendship” in which states retained all sovereignty and cooperated on the national level only when it suited their fancy. Decentralized government under the Articles did not work very well.

Under the Articles, the central government could not raise revenue, regulate interstate commerce, negotiate binding treaties, coin uniform money, run a postal system, maintain a military, or solve any number of problems emanating from a dysfunctional system of independent states.

So power had to be centralized to solve those problems and new ones as they arose. Things are the way they are today because of the problems we had to solve yesterday. But this incremental expansion of authority has now resulted in unhappiness over the extent to which the country has gone in solving problems.

We yearn for the days of the Confederation, and Congress is looking at two proposed constitutional amendments to move us in that direction.

One proposed amendment would require approval of a majority of state legislatures to raise the national debt limit. State legislatures are now attempting to force the calling of a constitutional convention to submit such an amendment to the states for ratification. In North Dakota, this is being considered as SCR 4007 in the current legislative session.

A second proposed constitutional amendment would permit two-thirds of the state legislatures to repeal any federal law or regulation they didn’t like.

Neither of these measures will get to the implementation stage. Getting state legislatures in 33 states to force the calling of a constitutional convention to propose an amendment and then getting 38 states to ratify the proposal is a pipedream. So is getting a two-thirds vote in Congress to propose an amendment that would restrict congressional jurisdiction of federal statutes.

If implemented, these amendments would put the future of the United States in the hands of 50 discordant entities, each marching to its own parochial drum. The very existence of the current Constitution attests to the fact that matters of national interest cannot be left in the hands of individual states. We’ve been there, done that.

If it is the consensus of the country that the federal system needs a greater tilt toward the states, then the way to accomplish that is not through constitutional amendments but through the political process, just as it has been for the past 200 years. The election of 2010 is accomplishing that, and a new tilting has begun.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com.