With the partial government shutdown now in its fifth day, the rhetoric among Democrats and among the pro-Beltway mainstream media has reached a fever pitch, with the leaders of the Republican opposition being likened to jihadists and terrorists, and pilloried for their alleged callous and irresponsible behavior. The federal government, as a Reuters story observed on October 1 — without a trace of irony — has had to divide its functions and employees between “essential” and “non-essential,” and furlough or idle the latter. Thus, we now have the federal government reduced to discharging only “essential” functions — which, it turns out, is still roughly 85 percent of what it was doing prior to October 1.
Forgotten or ignored in all the jockeying for political advantage is the fact that the Founders limited the federal government in the Constitution to those functions that they deemed “essential” — that is, those things which only the Federal government could properly do, like negotiate treaties with foreign powers, declare and conduct war, run a postal system, and deal with disputes between the states. And, lest there be any doubt among their posterity of the limits imposed on their federal creation, the Founders then clarifies in the final amendment of the Bill of Rights — the Tenth — that powers not expressly delegated by the Constitution to the federal government were reserved to the states or to the people. The federal government, in other words, may exercise only those powers enumerated in the Constitution.
Those enumerated powers were the “essential functions” of the federal government, though not necessarily of government in general. The Founders left open the possibility that state or local governments would choose to discharge functions above and beyond what the federal government was authorized to do. In the founding era and for generations thereafter, most government was, in fact, state or local. On the states, the Constitution only imposed the condition that they enjoy a republican form of government, but the latitude inherent in the federal system that they created ensured a wide diversity in the types of functions and services that state and local governments would have the power to perform.
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