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A Limited Government Amendment

JEFFREY H. ANDERSON

In the eyes of America's founders, unlimited government was a recipe for tyranny. It was with this in mind that they designed a series of carefully planned restraints for our republic, establishing a government with powers that are specifically enumerated, and explicitly granted by the people. Indeed, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison stressed that the new Constitution would not be the "same doctrine" of the "old world" — namely, "that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people" — simply "revived in the new, in another shape." Rather, Madison promised, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined."

But Madison's expectations about the self-containing nature of America's new government proved a bit too optimistic. In the two centuries since, the size and scope of the federal government have sporadically, but steadily, expanded. And in the past few years, a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, a $787 billion economic-stimulus package, and the passage of a major health-care overhaul — which aims to inaugurate a trillion-dollar-plus entitlement and dramatically reshape the relationship between individuals and the state — have brought the tension over federal spending to a head. Tea Party protests have sprung up across the country; their participants object primarily to the centralization of power in Washington at the expense of individual liberty, and to the profligacy of Congress at the expense of the nation's future solvency. To a degree not seen in many decades, Americans appear determined to provide a correction to the expansion of federal power.

In Madison's defense, however, this expansion has not been a product of the Constitution as written and ratified, but rather of changes to it, through rulings and amendments. These include the Supreme Court's expansive reading of the power to regulate interstate commerce, its severing of the power to tax from Congress's other enumerated powers, its narrow reading of the Tenth Amendment's reservation of powers to the states or the people, and, above all, the addition of the 16th Amendment, granting the federal government essentially unlimited power to tax Americans' income. All are developments that have inflated federal power well beyond the limits originally established by the Constitution.

Yet this warping of the framers' intent is less a cause for alarm than for action. If nothing else, the growth of the state clarifies our responsibilities as citizens. After all, the Constitution didn't emerge from the clouds: It was written by flesh-and-blood Americans, in response to the events and challenges of their day. And it includes an amendment provision allowing later generations to adapt the document to the events and challenges of our own times. Today, a correction is in order — and our founders wisely furnished us with the means to provide it.

THE PERILS OF THE BOTTOMLESS PURSE

In short, we need to pass a constitutional amendment to limit our federal government. The surest and best way to impose such a constraint is to cut off the source of government's growth, by limiting its power to spend. The great powers of government are those of the sword and the purse — and ours needs to be told that the purse is not bottomless.

Our government was not designed to serve as a clearinghouse for Americans' money — far from it. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, governments derive their "just Powers" from "the Consent of the Governed," and "are instituted" "to secure" "certain unalienable Rights," among which are the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Yet as with the Constitution, this early principle, too, has been altered over the years by those seeking to expand government's reach. In crafting the 1936 Democratic platform, President Franklin Roosevelt replaced government's duty to secure the right to pursue happiness with a government responsibility to promote happiness itself: "We hold these truths to be self-evident — that the test of representative government is its ability to promote the safety and happiness of the people," Roosevelt declared. Of course, this is not exactly what the founders had in mind.

The Declaration's language is rooted in the political philosophy of John Locke, who wrote that we have a natural right to property in three forms: "Lives, Liberties, and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property." Therefore, according to the Declaration of Independence (as informed by Locke), the purpose of just governments is not to act without limit, in any manner they wish, but rather to secure our natural and inalienable right to property, broadly understood. As James Madison asserted, "Government is instituted to protect property of every sort," adding: "This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own."

Conversely, a government that views itself as the provider for nearly every conceivable human need — rather than as the securer of that which has already been provided by nature, by nature's God, or through the industrious efforts of particular human beings — is liable to have a very different record of activity (and thus of spending). As the Declaration's principal author wrote in an 1816 letter from Monticello, the lesson "that private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as private extravagance" is indeed an important one. Thomas Jefferson continued:

And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automations of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia [war of all against all], which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.

It is unlikely that Jefferson would have anticipated the state in which America finds itself today: having amassed $13 trillion in federal debt, including, incredibly, $3 trillion in just the past three years. But he certainly understood the ill effects that follow swiftly upon such government extravagance, and the threats to our well-being and liberty that we face if we fail to change course.

The growth of government is therefore at the heart of our dilemma, and limiting its future expansion is the key to restoring some semblance of limited, constitutional authority. Both to highlight that problem and to solve it, we need a Limited Government Amendment, to read as follows:

Section 1: The annual rate of growth in total federal spending shall not exceed the rate of inflation, plus two percentage points, and neither budgeted nor actual spending shall exceed this limit, apart from the exceptions listed below. If no budget is passed, then the most recently passed budget, excluding any exceptions granted in Section 2, shall apply.

Section 2: Defense spending shall not be limited during a time of formally declared war, and further exceptions to the spending limits specified in Section 1 may be granted by the legislatures in three-quarters of the several states, upon the application of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, as they deem necessary; but any such exceptions shall not be included in determining spending limits for subsequent years.

Section 3: The spending limit for the first fiscal year following the cessation of hostilities in a declared war shall be the limit that was established for the fiscal year preceding the declaration of war, excluding any exceptions granted in that year, and adjusted for compounded inflation through all fiscal years completed in the interim.

Section 4: The rate of inflation used in determining spending limits shall be the rate from the most recently completed fiscal year prior to the passage of a given year's budget, and the method of measuring inflation shall not be altered substantially from long-established norms. Spending that is not defense spending shall not be characterized as such; each exception granted by the states shall apply only to one fiscal year if not granted anew; and every citizen of the United States shall have standing to sue in federal court to enforce the language of this amendment.

Such an amendment, far-fetched as it might seem at first, would be both practical and reasonable. Merely proposing it and forcing a debate on it would put the question of the size and scope of government squarely before the American people; it would also force the champions of a ballooning welfare state to make a case against any real limit on government's growth. And were the amendment actually to be enacted, it would not only dramatically reduce future deficits and debt, but would also revive the principle that government has limited ends which it ought to pursue by limited means.

A NEEDED RESTRAINT

Of course, the mere mention of a constitutional amendment — let alone one that would, after a century of ever-expanding government, so explicitly constrain the growth of the state — is likely to draw claims of "extremism." But there is nothing extreme, at least in the American context, about the notion of the citizenry limiting the government. The founders universally embraced the idea as a necessary condition of liberty and prosperity, even as they recognized that it would require ongoing diligence on the citizens' part.

And indeed, the Constitution has undergone frequent updates since 1787 — particularly throughout the first half of the 20th century, and as recently as 1992. In that year, the 27th Amendment — a provision to prevent a sitting Congress from changing its own salary — was enacted. The amendment had originally been proposed in 1789 along with the amendments that became the Bill of Rights; it was part of Madison's effort to inspire public trust in the new government. The proposal was passed by Congress but ratified by only six states, and had lain mostly dormant for nearly two centuries — until an undergraduate at the University of Texas discovered the proposed amendment while doing research for a course paper. Realizing it had no expiration date, and recognizing that congressional pay was still a thorny issue, he began a ten-year letter-writing campaign to state legislatures, undertaken at his own expense. Eventually, his effort succeeded; the amendment was ultimately ratified by 45 states. It was a classic case of an average citizen remaining vigilant over the Constitution — and a fairly recent case at that.

Even so, there are some who now say that citizen action isn't in order; that the centralization and consolidation of power in Washington is simply the irreversible wave of the future; that we no longer have anything to fear from such power (or anything to lose); that the founders' experiment is an anachronism; that limited government is dead.

But that is the extreme view. The reasonable view, plainly supported by the events of recent years, is that federal spending is out of control and needs to be limited. This would also appear to be the popular view, as the Tea Party indicates a groundswell of support for limited government. The challenge, however, is channeling that salutary energy, momentum, and civic engagement into concrete action of lasting significance. The Limited Government Amendment would have just that sort of profound impact.

And yet it would not require us to do something unrealistic or untried. The amendment would not even prevent the growth of government; it would merely limit that growth to not more than 2% per year in real terms. This is hardly an unheard-of degree of austerity in modern times. Looking at the presidents who took office after 1950, the average annual growth in real federal spending was lowest under Eisenhower (-0.4%), followed by Clinton (1.5%), the first Bush (1.8%), Reagan (2.6%), Ford (2.9%), Nixon (3.1%), Carter (4.3%), the second Bush (4.6%), Kennedy (4.7%), Johnson (6.0%), and Obama (12.7% so far, based on projected 2010 figures). In these tallies, the 2009 omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama is actually counted toward President Bush's spending, since it provided funding related to his 2009 budget. And the portion of the economic-stimulus funds that was spent in 2009 after the program was proposed by President Obama didn't count in his tally, either — because the funds weren't appropriated in Obama's first fiscal year. If they were added to Obama's 2010 spending, his tally would be 22.5%.

As these numbers indicate, limiting the growth of real annual federal spending to 2% has not been typical, but it certainly has been achieved — under a variety of circumstances, without putting the nation's security in peril, and without resorting to extreme austerity. No one would argue that fiscal policy during the Clinton years was a model of tight-fisted parsimony, or that it prevented the nation from responding to challenges at home and abroad. Indeed, during the 1990s — a decade that included the final stages of the Cold War, a new hot war, a sharp economic downturn, and a return to economic growth — both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton kept the average growth in spending below the amendment's limit.

In other words, we have kept federal spending under control before — and we can do it again. But clearly most politicians are not inclined to try. The kind of discipline such an effort would require over the long run thus seems possible only with the help of a constitutional amendment.

Over time, though, the results of such discipline would be extraordinary. Consider that, from 1970 to 2009, in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, annual federal spending increased from $1.1 trillion to $3.5 trillion. Under this proposed amendment (assuming no exceptions because of declared wars or via the approval of state legislatures), annual spending would have increased from $1.1 trillion in real dollars to no more than $2.5 trillion — $1 trillion less than actual spending. Total federal spending across the four decades would have fallen from $51.4 trillion to $43.6 trillion in today's dollars, a reduction of $7.8 trillion. All other things being equal, our staggering $13 trillion debt would have been reduced to just over $5 trillion. And that's even if Congress had spent every cent it was constitutionally allowed to under this amendment. If Congress had shown any additional restraint, even in some years, the debt tally would have fallen yet further.

Even looking at a much smaller time window — one starting in 2000 — the amendment would still have made a tremendous difference. In the past decade alone, annual federal spending increased from $2.3 trillion to $3.5 trillion in real dollars. Under this amendment, it would have increased from $2.3 trillion to no more than $2.7 trillion in real dollars. Thus, the real-dollar increase would have been, at most, about $400 billion instead of about $1.2 trillion — or only about one-third as much. Total federal spending across the decade would have been reduced by $2.6 trillion (in actual dollars), and 2009 spending would have been only 76% as high as it actually was. Moreover, the highly unpopular $787 billion economic-stimulus package wouldn't have become law, unless three-quarters of the state legislatures had granted an exception to pass it — an unlikely scenario — or Congress had budgeted so frugally as to allow itself the wiggle room for an extra $787 billion in spending (more unlikely still).

The real question, though, is what the amendment would do going forward. Assuming the continuation of the average inflation rate across the past quarter-century of 2.7% — and assuming that, without this amendment, federal spending would continue to increase at the 7.6% rate at which it has grown across the past decade (a reasonable assumption, given that the non-inflation-adjusted rate of increase in federal spending across the past 40 years has been 7.8%) — the results of the amendment would be quite dramatic.

In this scenario (again, assuming no exceptions because of declared wars or via the approval of state legislatures), the 2020 budget would be $7.7 trillion without the amendment, but no more than $5.7 trillion — only 76% as high — with the amendment, a difference of at least $2 trillion in 2020 alone. Total federal spending for the decade of 2011 to 2020 would be $56.9 trillion without the amendment, but no more than $47.1 trillion with the amendment — a difference of at least $9.8 trillion. (In reality, both inflation and federal spending may well be significantly higher in the coming decade; overall, however, the amendment's effects would be much the same.)

When we look at a 30-year period, the savings become astronomical. The 2040 budget would be $33.5 trillion without the amendment, but no more than $14.4 trillion — only 43% as high — with it, a difference of at least $19.1 trillion in that one year alone. Total federal spending across the three decades from 2011 to 2040 would, amazingly, be $422 trillion in today's dollars without the amendment, but no more than $240 trillion with it — a mind-boggling difference of $182 trillion.

Keep in mind that these numbers are not based on the worst-case scenarios for spending without the Limited Government Amendment, but rather on mid-range expectations. Forget the proverbial $64,000 question: When it comes to deciding whether we want this amendment, Americans face a $182,000,000,000,000 question.

Since a trillion — or a million millions — can be hard to conceptualize, here's another way of thinking about it. One hundred and eighty-two trillion dollars over 30 years is a total of $482,311 for every man, woman, and child that the Census Bureau projects will be living in the United States at the end of that period — or $16,077 per person, per year. If you're the sole income earner for a family of four, your share is $1.9 million, or $64,308 per year. That's what average Americans stand to save, annually, from the passage of this amendment.

COLLATERAL BENEFITS

The amendment offers other important benefits and advantages. It would, for one thing, allow the nation the flexibility to address unforeseen challenges. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 23 that "[t]he circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed." This warning certainly applies to the spending power; thus, the Limited Government Amendment would not place any limits whatsoever on defense spending during a time of declared war. It would also allow for exceptions in other moments of crisis, when the need for additional spending is so plain that the great majority of Americans — through their state legislators — acknowledge it.

As prudent and necessary as the exception for wartime spending would be, it would be equally imprudent and unwise to grant an exception for defense spending on undeclared wars or other conflicts. It is worth noting that the last time the United States made a formal declaration of war was during World War II; all the conflicts since have had some other form of congressional approval (like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to Vietnam, and the vote authorizing the ongoing war in Afghanistan), or no congressional sanction at all (like Korea and other ventures sponsored by the United Nations, and those forays launched by presidential action, like our uses of force in Grenada and Somalia).

Whatever one's views about the wisdom of these undeclared wars, it is hard to dispute that they have proven contentious over the years, deeply dividing the American public. An additional advantage of this amendment — and its explicit tying of defense-spending exceptions to a declaration of war — is that it would force elected officials to be much more careful about entering into foreign entanglements, and would move Congress to accept its constitutional responsibilities and formally declare war when the nation has clearly entered one. Every member of Congress would be on the hook and accountable for the conduct and outcome of each war he voted to authorize. And no use of force could take place without the implicit approval of the American people, through their duly elected congressional representatives.

As further security against unforeseen developments or emergencies that might arise, three-quarters of the state legislatures — upon the application of two-thirds of both houses of Congress — could grant one-year exceptions to the amendment's spending limits for any reason whatsoever, and could re-issue such exceptions as often as they deemed appropriate. If there is truly a reason why the federal government must spend more money, then three-quarters of the states will likely concur. It is hard to imagine, for instance, more than one-quarter of the states objecting to extra funding for the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or to help Lower Manhattan recover from the attacks of September 11th.

By the same token, however, requiring broad approval from the states for such emergency funding would also likely impose useful constraints. If the money appropriated for such aid is limited to what three-quarters of the states will authorize, rather than drawn from an endless federal slush fund (as is the practice today), government authorities (federal, state, and local) will have much more incentive to ensure that recovery work and spending are done efficiently, and to root out expensive fraud and waste — both of which were problems in the aftermaths of Katrina and September 11th.

The provision requiring a two-thirds congressional majority for spending exceptions, meanwhile, provides an important protection against federal extortion of the states. For instance, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which Congress might try to make federal grants to the states — such as the massive amount of funding tied to Medicaid — part of an exceptions-spending provision, rather than funding these programs through the regular budget. With almost every state thoroughly dependent on federal money, most states would simply have to approve the exceptions measure — regardless of whether they approved of all the spending provisions contained therein — simply to preserve their own fiscal solvency. But by requiring two-thirds of the members of Congress to risk their jobs by supporting such shenanigans, the amendment significantly reduces the appeal of federal schemes plotted at the states' expense.

The use of an inflation-adjusted limit, too, offers advantages. First, it would tie the growth of government to real spending power, rather than to economic growth. Attempts by government, through the Treasury and Federal Reserve, to influence the inflation rate itself (in order to permit more government spending) would thus prove futile, since they would only reduce the purchasing power of the additional spending. Second, the level of permitted spending would likely increase faster in tough economic times (when inflation tends to be higher, while economic growth is lower) and more slowly in good times — allowing for countercyclical fiscal policy within reasonable bounds. And because the amendment places limits on the definition of inflation, it would allow for changes in economic thinking to be reflected in economic policy — but would still prevent policymakers from playing fast and loose with terms to a degree that would make the inflation-adjusted cap on spending meaningless.

Among the amendment's greatest benefits, however, are its provisions for enforcement. For one thing, it sets Congress and the president against each other as checks: The president cannot unilaterally violate the amendment, because he doesn't control the purse; Congress cannot unilaterally violate it either, because it is the president — not Congress — who actually carries out government's spending. Furthermore, the amendment turns the American people into an enforcement mechanism, as they would be able to vote out lawmakers who violated the terms of the amendment. Election Day would thus become both a punishment for and deterrent against politicians' engaging in such lawlessness.

Finally, per section four, every citizen would have the standing to sue in order to ensure the amendment's enforcement. This provision is intended to prevent a situation in which the president and Congress have colluded to violate this new section of the Constitution and yet no citizen — or only a very few citizens — can demonstrate enough direct ill effects to establish standing to sue in federal court. By having the language of the Constitution itself explicitly grant every American this standing, the amendment makes it easier for any citizen to challenge the laws that fund annual budgets if these measures violate the amendment — and so make it easier for the judiciary to strike down such laws as unconstitutional.

CHECKS AND BALANCES

Like all constitutional modifications, the Limited Government Amendment could be proposed either by Congress or through a convention called upon the application of two-thirds of state legislatures. Given the nature of this amendment, the state legislatures would almost certainly need to be the originating source. But Congress might ultimately be coaxed into action: If the American people could persuade anything approaching two-thirds of state legislatures to advance this idea, then Congress might prefer to propose the amendment itself, rather than inviting a convention to do so.

It is true that the constitutionally sanctioned process of having state legislatures call a convention to propose an amendment has never been utilized. One possible reason for inaction in this vein has been the theoretical possibility of a runaway convention; in light of the very real and pressing dangers that we already face to our liberty and solvency, however, such potential concerns are comparatively trivial. Besides, there are two reliable checks against potential mischief.

First, the state legislatures could legally constrain their respective convention delegates to vote only on this particular amendment. This measure would be similar to many states' current policies that legally bind their Electoral College delegates to vote for the candidate who receives the largest share of the state's popular vote. If even a significant minority of states were to undertake this precaution, it is unlikely that any other potential amendments could achieve the majority support they would need to be formally proposed.

Second, if any other potential amendments were to be officially proposed, they would still have to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures or by conventions in three-quarters of the states — whichever Congress preferred — to have any legal effect. Such a supermajority requirement is unlikely to be met by ill-advised proposals.

It should be no surprise that this second check is in place. The founders, after all, knew what they were doing. And they presumably would not have empowered state legislatures to call a subsequent convention to propose a constitutional amendment if they had thought this provision would subvert the work they were in the midst of completing at Independence Hall.

THE RIGHT AMENDMENT

Frustration with federal excess has spawned other constitutional-amendment proposals in recent years. Most noteworthy are a Term Limits Amendment, a Balanced Budget Amendment, and Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett's recent proposals for a Federalism Amendment. Each of these proposals represents an attempt to rein in excesses of federal power, and each has its merits — but each addresses something other than the real problem. In expelling many of the shameless spendthrifts who populate Capitol Hill, a Term Limits Amendment would also remove from office many good, cost-conscious members of Congress; the mix would by no means be guaranteed to improve. A Balanced Budget Amendment, meanwhile, would limit deficits but not necessarily spending; it might only succeed in causing taxes to be raised to European levels.

Barnett's Federalism Amendment would repeal the 16th Amendment and severely curtail the federal government's ability to interfere in states' policies and activities. In addition to being a somewhat immoderate proposal, calling for federal judges or supermajorities of states to rein in the federal government seems overly optimistic. Judges have consistently shown their willingness to apply tortured readings of the Constitution to avoid checking Congress. And state governments are often nearly as bloated and profligate as the federal government, run by representatives too similar to their free-spending counterparts in Washington.

The only other direct option for constricting government would be to place limits on government's funding source. But at a time when America owes $13 trillion, cutting off revenue would be unwise. Besides, as our Congress has consistently shown, it doesn't have to have money to spend it. Furthermore, over time, if our government's ability to spend becomes limited, its appetite for taxation will be limited, too: After all, taxing and spending isn't much fun without the latter part. So the real problem is excessive spending, and that is what we must stop.

Obviously, an amendment to constrain the growth of spending would not have an easy time getting enacted. It would require a protracted effort, and it would face long odds. But it is worth remembering that most other constitutional amendments did at some point, too — not to mention the Constitution itself.

A further advantage of the Limited Government Amendment over other recent proposals is that it is designed to generate constructive debate in the course of that enactment struggle. The amendment's advocates would not need to argue against government as such — or even against the need for modest expansions of government's activities over time — but simply for some prudent limits. Its opponents, meanwhile, would have to make the case not only for allowing government to expand, but for allowing it to expand without limit. Such a debate would be enormously clarifying for the country. It could also have the added benefit of inspiring similar amendments to state constitutions. At a time when many states are awash in red ink and some even teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, such proposals might prove of great use to cost-conscious governors and legislators (not to mention state taxpayers), and offer a useful proving ground for the national-level amendment.

Above all, both as a proposal and as a ratified amendment to our Constitution, the Limited Government Amendment would focus the country on the right issue: the question of spending. With spending comes regulation; with spending comes taxation; with spending comes the consolidation of power. The danger inherent in such consolidation was already evident to Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830s, when he warned against it in Democracy in America. To Tocqueville, the surest way to undermine people's incentive and ability to actively govern themselves was to consolidate money and power in a centralized government. Government action, he believed, would then increasingly take the place of free human action and interaction, leading to a scenario in which, as he put it,

the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

But in the wake of this stunningly prescient description, Tocqueville also offered encouragement and advice on how we should proceed. He wrote that the "perils" he described are not "insurmountable," and that our instincts to combat them "will always be found because they come from the foundation of the [democratic] social state, which will not change. For a long time," he added, this "will keep any despotism from being able to settle in, and [it] will furnish new arms to each new generation that wants to struggle in favor of men's freedom."

It would appear that the time has come for this generation's struggle to reclaim some of America's lost freedoms. The majority of Americans have reached the limits of their tolerance for obtrusive centralized power — and, as is evident in the Tea Parties and other popular appeals to the early days of the republic, many are eager to restore the founders' vision.

Still, there are some who, though alarmed by the unbridled expansion of government, might be reticent about championing a Limited Government Amendment. For them, a thought experiment is in order. Suppose that everything falls into place for the repeal of Obamacare, the greatest immediate threat to limited government in our day. Suppose opponents of that entitlement, most of them Republicans, take the House in 2010. They also take the Senate in 2010 or 2012, by a significant (but likely not filibuster-proof) majority. They win the White House in 2012. With President Obama himself having been removed from office, supporters of Obamacare read the clear writing on the wall and don't dare to filibuster in the Senate. Opponents subsequently pass a law in January 2013 to repeal Obamacare, thereby removing that scourge to liberty and fiscal solvency from the books. Celebrations ensue, and a great victory for American ideals and limited government has been won.

Then what?

AN ESSENTIAL REVISION

It is our duty as American citizens to keep vigil over our Constitution, strengthening and maintaining it, rather than blithely expecting it to maintain itself. Thomas Jefferson warned against those who would refuse to tend to our founding documents, writing: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment." And President George Washington, in his farewell address, shared with his fellow citizens his fondest hopes that "the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained — that its administration in every department may be stamped with Wisdom and Virtue." He certainly did not think that the document would maintain itself.

Our forefathers wrote and ratified our Constitution to include an amendment process, so that if a correction, or recalibration, were needed, we could provide it. Adapting the Constitution to the concerns of the day doesn't mean allowing judges to mold the document into a vehicle to impose their will: That is lawlessness. Rather, it means that the Constitution can be changed, through the proper legal process, by the American people.

We find ourselves in a moment at which the freedoms our forefathers intended for us are endangered by the very government meant to secure those freedoms. Were the founders here today, they would almost certainly urge Americans to take action to avoid the pitfalls of "public debt," excessive taxation, and the "wretchedness and oppression" that follow — let alone to combat the dangers that an overbearing government poses to our civic fabric and way of life. The best way to take up that call is through the Limited Government Amendment. And given the urgency of America's predicament, the best time to advance it is now.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is director of the Benjamin Rush Society, which promotes lower costs and increased access to health care through greater competition and choice.