Spending, public debt and constitutional design: Remarks by Michael W. McConnell
The Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture
Video
About This Event

Post-Event Summary

With America's debt now totaling over $16 trillion, many Americans are worried about the lack of resolve with which politicians on both sides of the aisle are confronting the issue. On Thursday evening, at the first annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture hosted by AEI's Program on American Citizenship, Michael W. McConnell of Stanford Law School argued that although America's politicians might not have many serious things to say about the debt problem, the nation's founders — and the documents they produced — do.

By constitutional design, McConnell noted, only the legislature — not the executive — can borrow, and the spending power of Congress is limited to "general, not local" purposes. Thus, the now amorphous general welfare clause of the Constitution once had a very specific meaning: it was to be used only for projects that would extend throughout the Union. According to McConnell, the now common practice of earmarking federal funds for local projects violates this national compact.

But since the Constitution can be — and is often — ignored, alleged McConnell, the founders' constitutional design by itself is not enough to bring fiscal sanity and responsible government. For this reason, he encouraged Americans themselves to take up the cause, for in the end, they are "the only protections that really count."

Event Description

Spending and borrowing are often seen as policy issues, not as constitutional ones. But the Constitution’s architects thought long and hard about the democratic tendency to pursue particular votes at the expense of the common good, to favor central government at the expense of the productive hinterlands, and to neglect the long term to curry favor in the present. As the U.S. approaches an unprecedented fiscal crisis, it is worth revisiting the founders’ ideas about the relation between fiscal policy and constitutional design.

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787, the Program on American Citizenship will celebrate Constitution Day with a lecture by Michael W. McConnell, Richard & Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School. This event is the first in a lecture series named for distinguished scholar Walter Berns

Agenda

4:45 PM
Registration

5:00 PM
Introduction 
Arthur C. Brooks, AEI 

Remarks:
Michael W. McConnell, Stanford Law School

6:00 PM
Wine and cheese reception

 

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Barrett Bowdre at [email protected], 202.862.5946.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected], 202.862.4871.

Speaker Biographies

Arthur C. Brooks has been the president of AEI since January 1, 2009. Previously, he was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University. He is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from the economics of the arts to military operations research. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (Basic Books, 2012). Other books include “The Battle” (Basic Books, May 2010), “Gross National Happiness” (Basic Books, 2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (Prentice-Hall, 2008) and Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a professional French hornist with the City Orchestra of Barcelona and other ensembles.

Michael W. McConnell is the Richard & Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, as well as senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Additionally, he is of counsel to the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Before joining Stanford in 2009, he served as a circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He has argued 13 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently CompuCredit v. Greenwood in 2011. A leading authority on freedom of speech and religion, the relation of individual rights to government structure, constitutional interpretation and various other aspects of constitutional law, he is the author of numerous articles and is the co-author of two casebooks: “The Constitution of the United States” and “Religion and the Constitution.” Since 1996, he has been a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Before his appointment to the bench in 2002, McConnell was Presidential Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, and, before that, the William B. Graham Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He has taught six times as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. He served as assistant general counsel in the Office of Management and Budget and as assistant to the solicitor general in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Reagan. He was also a member of the president’s Intelligence Oversight Board from 1988–1990. He was a law clerk to then chief judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and to Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Post-Event Summary

With America's debt now totaling over $16 trillion, many Americans are worried about the lack of resolve with which politicians on both sides of the aisle are confronting the issue. On Thursday evening, at the first annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture hosted by AEI's Program on American Citizenship, Michael W. McConnell of Stanford Law School argued that although America's politicians might not have many serious things to say about the debt problem, the nation's founders — and the documents they produced — do.

By constitutional design, McConnell noted, only the legislature — not the executive — can borrow, and the spending power of Congress is limited to "general, not local" purposes. Thus, the now amorphous general welfare clause of the Constitution once had a very specific meaning: it was to be used only for projects that would extend throughout the Union. According to McConnell, the now common practice of earmarking federal funds for local projects violates this national compact.

But since the Constitution can be — and is often — ignored, alleged McConnell, the founders' constitutional design by itself is not enough to bring fiscal sanity and responsible government. For this reason, he encouraged Americans themselves to take up the cause, for in the end, they are "the only protections that really count."

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