March 27, 1996: a day that will live in infamy

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- "Comes the revolution . . . " Forget that one. The revolution came Wednesday. On the Supreme Court, five radicals voted to try to sever the direct link between individuals and federal government that had been the principal innovation of the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

In the Senate, 69 radicals (or fools) voted to try to shift half of the Congress' control over spending to the president, partially negating the Founding Fathers' determination to check the ambitions of any president who would be king.


The court radicals, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, used a case about gambling casinos on Indian reservations to try to prevent individual citizens from suing in federal courts to compel state governments to obey many or most of the laws of the country.

The Senate radicals, led by Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, voted to give presidents, current and future, the power of line-item veto -- that is, the power to eliminate just about any bit of the federal budget that does not suit their purposes of the moment.


In the first case, five members of the court aligned themselves with 18th-century Tories who wanted the president of the new United States of America to be a constitutional monarch replacing King George III. The modern Tories, led by the chief justice, voted to conserve what Americans had in 1775, before the first American Revolution, or in 1786, before the writing of the Constitution.

The U.S. was not the world's first federal government. Switzerland and Germany, to name two, were already leagues of confederations in which the central government dealt principally with regional governments. In the new United States, the one created in 1787 when the several states ratified the work of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia, the central authority could deal directly with citizens and had the means to execute the laws it made with or without state cooperation.

That idea of a more perfect union was the key to much of American history, including the Civil War. Looking at the Constitution and its implementation, 44 years later in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, in "Democracy in America," wrote that what was new on this side of the Atlantic was this: "Here the central power acts without intermediary on the governed, administering and judging them itself, as do national governments, but it only acts thus within a restricted circle."

The restrictions are in the Constitution and its amendments. Chief Justice Rehnquist and his four concurring radicals recognized that last Wednesday, but only where it suited their purposes. They restricted this right and reason to sue in federal courts to civil-rights cases covered by the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law.

The nose of the amendment

But, as the justices perfectly know, racial segregation grew legally in the country for more than a century under the nose of that amendment. It was finally attacked by the federal government using the interstate-commerce clause of the original document. And commerce cases were banned under last week's ruling.

In the second case, if the Senate action were not so irresponsible and potentially destructive, it could be dismissed as the fantasy of fools floating on the political drift of the moment.

The attractions of the line-item veto are nakedly political: (1) It would reduce federal spending because presidents would have the half-power of eliminating appropriations they do not like, but could not add any; (2) as senators said last Wednesday, it would politically end all confusions of divided responsibility, allowing them to blame all spending on presidents.


Of course, remembering what we were taught in elementary school, the whole idea of the United States was divided government. Checks and balances, the Founding Fathers thought, would prevent the accumulation and abuses of power in three branches, the presidency, the Congress and the courts. The founders did this because they were frightened by the prospect of zealots on the Supreme Court and irresponsible fools running Congress.

And now we realize once again how smart the Founding Fathers were. March 27, 1996, is a day that will live in American infamy.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/02/96