A Good Speech by Boehner, But . . .

by Matt A. Mayer

House Minority Leader John Boehner’s speech today at the City Club of Cleveland did a good job of articulating things we shouldn’t do (raise taxes, pass bad lame-duck bills, continue spending) and many familiar things we should do (ratify free-trade agreements, repeal Obamacare’s 1099 mandate, help small business). Almost as important, Boehner expressly acknowledged his party’s role in the growth of the federal government. As a conservative, I am always frustrated to hear those who spent like drunken sailors conveniently omit their own role in tarnishing conservative fiscal policy. Boehner’s mea culpa on behalf of Republicans is an important one, as it sends the message to fiscally conservative Ohioans that a Speaker Boehner wouldn’t waste his opportunity to lead Ohio and America back to prosperity. But the minority leader’s speech was missing something.

Our Founding Fathers envisioned that representatives and senators would be “of the people” and do the people’s bidding, but as the federal government grew in power and the country itself grew in size and population, fewer and fewer politicians in Washington had any idea who the people were and what they wanted. Today, the people and their politicians are as far apart as they have ever been. Therein lies the missed opportunity of Boehner’s speech: Even if Republicans take control of the House and the Senate, the fundamental structure of American government will not change.

I might be wrong, but I think there is a single unifying theme to the tea-party movement, the recent decline in the Democratic brand, and the decline of the Republican brand before that: “We the People” don’t want the locus of power over our lives to be in Washington anymore. Not that we ever really did, of course, but we have been like frogs in a pot of boiling water — fortunately, we wised up pre-boil.

Whether the issue is health care, taxes, energy regulation, immigration, or unionism, a fed-centric approach leaves us emasculated and always carries a higher cost. Yes, Sacramento can’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag and the stench out of Albany is sickening, but for every dysfunctional state, there is a Texas under Rick Perry, an Indiana under Mitch Daniels, and a New Jersey under Chris Christie. It’s easier for the people to fight for and get change (i.e., accountability) the closer the power is to the people (i.e., transparency). I’d rather put the well-being of America in the hands of fifty governors and state legislatures than have all the marbles depend on one president, 218 representatives, and 60 senators.

I hope a future speech from Leader Boehner will advocate a return of power to states and localities; respect for the Ninth and Tenth amendments; an end to the erroneous interpretations of the Commerce and Supremacy clauses that justify near-endless expansions of federal power; acknowledgment that popular consent limits the power of government; and belief in what Justice Louis Brandies called the “laboratories of democracy.” Such a speech would launch a national debate about how we structure our government and its finances, and whether by restructuring them we might better ensure that John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” Abraham Lincoln’s “last best hope” and Ronald Reagan’s “stronger and freer” city remain those things.

We want our lives and our country back. What will a Speaker Boehner do to facilitate the return of power to the institutions closest to the people?

Matt A. Mayer is president of the Buckeye Institute.

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