Preamble Ramble

I’m neither a lawyer nor a Constitutional scholar, but I’m going to talk a little bit about the Constitution today anyway. It doesn’t seem to stop anyone else.

Recently, the Trump Administration unveiled its first budget, to the outraged horror of the masses. Included are massive cuts to just about everything that doesn’t involve fuel or gunpowder or both. The justifications for these cuts1 generally comes down to “We can’t ask the American people to foot the bill for X any longer.” It’s a very, very cynical ploy because as far as I can tell, no one has actually asked for PBS and Meals on Wheels (for example) to go away. But to hear the Administration’s drones tell the story, apparently this was Very, Very Necessary.

It’s pretty grotesque to spin getting rid of food for indigent senior citizens as “compassionate,” but that’s exactly what the artificial lifeform disguised as a human being designated “Mick Mulvaney” did, saying that it might seem cruel, but it’s really kind…to “the folks who give us the money in the first place. And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit . . . unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.'”

Because how on earth could keeping poor old people from starving to death be a “proper function” of money?

“Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” Mulvaney’s firmware-driven colloquy engine continued. “The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

(Just so you know: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in federal funding in the last fiscal year. The federal budget is around $4 trillion.)

Now, let’s set aside the faux pearl-clutching on behalf of poor coal miners and single moms. And let’s set aside the risible notion that a wealthy lifelong lawyer and politician (as Mick Mulvaney is programmed to emulate) knows what a coal miner or a single mom wants and needs. Let’s just look at what’s really going on here: That the Administration has some pretty hard-core ideas about what it is appropriate to spend taxpayers’ money on.

Some Things It’s Not OK to Spend Money On

  • Food for old people
  • Arts programs that enlighten and educate regardless of income level or geographic location
  • Science

Things It’s OK to Spend Money On

Now, you may be thinking, “This is all well and good, Barry, but what does the Constitution have to do with this? The Constitution does not require the government to spend money on any particular thing. Even things you like.”


Or maybe not so true.

When we talk about the Constitution, we tend to talk about the nitty-gritty specifics of Articles and Sections. We parse the words. We listen as the insufferable originalists spout their bull about how we must interpret the Constitution exactly as the Founders intended as that is the only valid interpretation, even though they themselves rarely do just that.

But how often do we talk about, well, the Preamble?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Of course, if you are Of a Certain Age (as I am), you probably can’t see or read that without hearing this in your head (and possibly humming along):

Those aren’t just cute words that the Founders thought made for a nice opening number. They’re not like the useless Prologue in that bad fantasy novel you read last week, the one that the author really should have cut. The Preamble is as much a part of the Constitution as the Bill of Rights, and it deserves some consideration.

Look back over those words. In the Preamble, the Founders are saying, “Look, here’s why we’re writing this damn thing in the first place. All of the Articles and Sections and Bills you’re about to read — they exist because of what we’re saying right here in the Preamble. Everything you do with the document you’re reading, you need to do bearing in mind that this is why we wrote it.”

In short: All of the powers and rights enumerated in the Constitution itself are the means. The Preamble is the end. We need to use those powers in order to create a situation whereby the specifics of the Preamble are met.

Fortunately for all of us, those specifics are super-simple and super-easy to understand. It’s not complicated at all.

establish Justice — Seems pretty obvious, right? Let’s make this a place where people are treated justly. So, black folks shouldn’t be shot in the street like animals. And when women are harassed or molested, we should do something about that, no? Those things are just, aren’t they?

insure domestic Tranquility — You could be a smartass and say that this is about your home life, but let’s be real — “domestic” is in opposition to “foreign.” In other words, let’s be at peace within our borders.

provide for the common defense — I don’t think (and neither do you) that the Founders meant common as in everyday. They meant common as in belonging to or affecting the public. Trump’s budget only gets part of this right. Yeah, he’s increasing military spending, but that’s not the only component of a “common defense.” If you think the only thing that keeps us safe is guns, bombers, and warships, you’re nuts. Shielding us from massive climate change contributes to the “common defense,” as does not taking actions that breed more terrorists.

promote the general Welfare — Here’s the big one. This isn’t about finding General Welfare and making him a four-star general, people. This is about seeing to it that all of us are okay. That we aren’t suffering. That old people without any money aren’t going hungry and that kids everywhere (even — gasp! — in coal country) can come to appreciate their community and their country through sensible arts education.

Here’s just one example, courtesy of Bloomberg:

Take the town of Whitesburg, Kentucky. The NEA and NEH funded a program by Appalshop that preserves the film, tapes and photographs needed to tell the story of the region’s history and culture. But for the NEA and NEH’s investments and the validation that those investments provided, philanthropies like the Mellon Foundation would have been less likely to lend private support to the project. The eastern Kentucky community doesn’t have much wealth or many potential private donors — but that doesn’t make its history any less critical to capture than New York’s or Boston’s. The program not only promotes civic pride, but also gives young people training and work in an economy still finding its footing as its coal-mining foundation fades.

Trump and Co. talk a lot about their precious coal miners, but apparently don’t care if those folks understand and appreciate their own history and communities or learn something other than coal mining.

secure the Blessings of Liberty — This one is so easy. Because it’s impossible without the others. You do the others and this one falls into line all on its own.

So, what have I spent all of this time and all of these words trying to say? It’s simple: The Constitution is not merely a checklist of dos and don’ts, of allowances and prohibitions. It is a document that does not simply circumscribe government’s behavior. It sets the government’s goals. It establishes the necessary end-game. And it doesn’t say at all that if a coal miner or a single mom doesn’t want something that this means we just toss it out.

But of course, the coal miners and single moms never said that. Certainly not en masse. They’re just being cynically exploited by the Mick-bot 2.0. Which, BTW, needs its software updated to include the Preamble to the Constitution.

  1. A misnomer, really, as some of these are “cuts” the same way a screwdriver to the carotid is a “cut.”

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