The first few words of the Preamble of our Constitution are likely familiar to us. Those famous words begin, “We the People of the United States…” We may even remember a popular (and very important!) line from the Declaration of Independence which asserts that governments derive their just powers, “from the consent of the governed”. But we sometimes have questions about this line of thinking that do not seem so clear. I mean, if these things are really true, then we might sometimes wonder, “What are the specific things that “We the People” have authorized for the federal government to do?”, or “How would I know if my government is trying to do something for which “We the People” have not given our consent?” and “if abuse is happening, what can “We the People” do about it?”. These are great questions. Let’s consider some potential answers.
Importance of a Contract
Let’s say I hire a company to do some renovation work in my kitchen. We sit down together and write a contract. In the contract, we specify the changes we are making. We outline our choice of cabinets, the new floor tile, the paint colors, new light fixtures and appliances. The contract outlines the costs for each. I grimace a little at the total, but we agree to all these things and the contractor and I both sign the document. Then because I don’t want the inconvenience of my kitchen being under construction, I put my family in the van and we head out for a long road trip vacation. When I get home, I am surprised to see that my home is no longer recognizable! There are so many things over and above what I asked for! I am even more surprised to find out the bill for all the work is roughly the cost to build a new home! I ask what happened, and the contractor says they really thought it made sense to increase the square footage of the house – so they added a second floor. He proceeds to give me all kinds of reasons why his team of “experts” thought this was a good idea. What do I say?!? All this work was not in the contract! There is no way I am going to pay that bill! I didn’t even want a second floor! The contractor went WAY beyond what I hired him to do.
Our Constitution is a contract
Our Constitution is a contract. The parties to the contract are the people of the “Free and Independent States” who came together to create the federal government during the Constitutional Convention. They (or I could say “we” by extension) came together and delegated certain, specifically listed, or “enumerated” powers to accomplish the specific government tasks at the federal level that needed to be done. The Constitution is that contract that lists each of the delegated powers. Every official that accepts a role in the federal government swears an oath to support the Constitution. That Constitution defines very clear, limited roles – very specific things they can do. However, like the contractor in our fictional kitchen project, the federal government has completely ignored their contract and taken on huge, additional duties with exorbitant price tags.
Limited government power
Enumerated powers are nothing more than specific, listed duties that each branch of the government is authorized to do. Government officials have authority to do only those things specifically listed, or “enumerated” in the Constitution. You may have heard our Constitution referred to as an “Express Powers” document. This means government power has to be specified in the Constitution. That is the extent of their contract with the American people. In the article, “Why Jurisdictions Matter”, we discussed a Sheriff that had authority in certain cases, but we discovered he had very real and tangible limits on his legitimate authority. If he went beyond these limits, we decided he was actually a criminal! Similarly, enumerated powers are those limits for the federal government’s legitimate authority.
Why would our founders limit the power of the federal government? They did not trust power! They had just witnessed Great Britain abusing governmental power and they never wanted that to happen in our country. James Madison, commonly referred to as the “Father of the Constitution” explains…
“Constitution is a limited one, possessing no power not actually given, and carrying on the face of it a distrust of power beyond the distrust indicated by the ordinary forms of free Government.”– James Madison
Questions like the ones we gave in the opening of this article are nothing new for Americans. We have always been allowed, and even encouraged, to question the activities of our government, and in the words of the First Amendment, to “Petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. So to ask questions like these is decidedly American. “What are the specific things that “We the People” have authorized for the federal government to do?” The specific things “We the People” have authorized the federal government to do are the “Enumerated Powers” of each branch listed in the Constitution. If it isn’t a power specifically listed in the Constitution, they can’t do it. If it isn’t listed, they have no authority to do it. If it isn’t listed, it is unconstitutional for them to do it. Both major political parties go well beyond their legitimate authority regularly. We spend hours listening to the fussing and fighting over the details of the pros and cons of a hundred different issues. However, the truth is, the vast majority of the time, whatever they are fussing about isn’t in their enumerated powers anyway!
Have we the people given consent?
“How would I know if my government is trying to do something for which “We the People” have not given our consent?” As Americans, we all need to become familiar with the Constitution of the United States. We need to focus on the real Constitution – the one our founders originally intended – not the countless mutations of our Constitution that judges have issued over the past 230+ years. The enumerated powers found in the Constitution are not complex. Americans must become familiar with the Constitution again and be able to hold our elected officials accountable for their behavior. If we find these officials are abusing their power – if we find they are adding a second floor to the house when the contract says they are supposed to redo the kitchen, then we need to ensure they are removed from office and they are replaced with those who will honor their oath to the Constitution of the United States.
“The power under the Constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled.”– George Washington
What are Enumerated Powers?
Enumerated powers are those powers specifically listed in the Constitution that “We the People” have authorized the federal government to do. In future articles, we will look into the enumerated powers of each branch of government to learn more about what they should and should not be doing. We will also see the requirement for enumerated powers found in the Constitution itself. Lastly, we will look at a powerful example from our nation’s history to show how following this idea of enumerated powers should play out if we are committed to honoring limits of our Constitution yet we find something new – or a change that “We the People” want to make – to the enumerated powers of the federal government.
If we are going to return to the form of limited, Constitutional government our founders gave us, Americans must understand and embrace the idea of enumerated powers. We hope you’ll come with us as we consider these things together.