By Congressman Scott Garrett
Our Country's founding principles of limited government and individual liberty were on trial this week as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
At the heart of this act is the individual mandate, which holds that the federal government can require citizens to purchase health insurance under threat of monetary penalty.
Such a law is unprecedented, unnecessary, unlimited and, above all else, unconstitutional. Never before has the federal government required people to buy a good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States. And yet, using the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution as its rationale, that's exactly what the Obama administration intends to do.
I would expect Obama, himself a former constitutional law professor, to know that the Commerce Clause was not intended to serve as a blank check for the federal government to compel individuals to engage in commerce in order to regulate it. Rather, the purpose of the Commerce Clause was to establish a national free trade pact so that states could no longer erect protectionist barriers to trade, which had stunted the economic development of our young republic.
Simply put, the Founders purposely included the Commerce Clause in the Constitution to grant Congress the power to regulate, or "make regular," interstate commerce. Obama and his allies would take what the Founders designed to be a modest power and expand it beyond its original intent to suit their progressive vision of a command-and-control federal government.
The Founders, who fought for liberty through the blood, sweat and tears brought by years of war -- and remained suspicious of a strong, centralized government--would be surprised to learn that the U.S. Constitution authorized the federal government to pursue expansive powers antithetical to the principles of personal freedom. They would not, however, be surprised to learn that a future administration would claim these powers.
Rather, the Founders expected it, which is why they established a system of checks and balances specifically designed to protect individual liberty against the threat of executive tyranny.
Indeed, the writings of the Founders indicate that they expected the growth of government to threaten the freedom of future generations. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and the man most responsible for our form of government, studied the history of the ancient republics and concluded that the republican form of government will perpetually be on the defensive against the encroachments of aspiring tyrants.
John Adams agreed with Madison's assessment and is known to have said that "Democracy never lasts long... there was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." In perhaps the most direct warning to the people about the fragility of limited government from the Founders, Benjamin Franklin proclaimed that the Constitutional Convention had produced "a republic, if you can keep it."
However, Thomas Jefferson, unique among his revolutionary colleagues, remained optimistic in the belief that not only would the American experiment in limited government and individual liberty endure, but that the principles on which our republic was founded would spread beyond the borders of the 13 original colonies.
In the last letter he would write before his death, Jefferson declared, "All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man."
If the individual mandate is upheld, the century-long effort by the progressive movement to remove the constitutional barriers ensuring the protection of limited government will be complete.
As Madison, Adams and Franklin predicted, the American republic will have succumbed to soft despotism and the consolidation of unchecked power that results from attempting to satisfy every need and want of a temporary majority.
If the Obama administration prevails, and the individual mandate is upheld, it will have been our generation that presided over the demise of the American experiment in individual liberty.
All is not lost, though. There is still reason to hold out hope. In their warnings, the Founders said that it was up to the people to preserve the freedom that had been bequeathed to them. If the American people's devotion to individual liberty remains undiminished, then we have a right to share in Jefferson's optimism in the eternal truth and longevity of our founding principles.
If the Supreme Court is to affirm that individual liberty still has meaning, the justices must strike down the individual mandate, and with it all of the health care act, as unconstitutional.
Rep. Scott Garrett, R-Wantage, represents New Jersey's Fifth District and is founder and chairman of the Congressional Constitution Caucus.