When Presidents Upheld the Law
by Rich Tucker, Heritage Foundation, February 17, 2014
Today is known as “President’s Day,” a three-day weekend retailers use to lend an air of Founding-era seriousness to their sales. But its legal name is Washington’s birthday—and how appropriate to reflect on a President who took his bearings from the Constitution while serving in office.
George Washington “understood himself to be the President of a Republic in which the people, through their elected representatives in Congress, make laws,” Heritage’s David Azerrad writes. As the chief executive, Washington recognized that his constitutional charge to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” was a duty rather than an optional responsibility to exercise at will. Laws, no matter how unpopular, had to be upheld, so long, of course, as they were constitutional.
Perhaps no law was more despised in Washington’s time than the excise tax on whiskey. It fell especially hard on farmers on the frontier of Pennsylvania, for whom whiskey was the drink of choice and grain the most lucrative crop. Washington saw the farmers’ violent resistance to the tax—the so-called Whiskey Rebellion—as a direct threat to the rule of law.
If “the laws are to be so trampled upon with impunity,” Washington noted, “nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected hereafter.” The President’s response was therefore swift and forceful: He personally led more than 12,000 troops to western Pennsylvania and quashed the rebellion.
What a contrast to President Barack Obama’s “I can do whatever I want” attitude toward the rule of law. In light of Washington’s constitutional leadership, Obama’s dereliction of duty when it comes to enforcing Obamacare—today’s most unpopular law and the President’s namesake—is especially clear. The President has unilaterally made changes to the law that was passed by Congress.
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Other examples of the President’s selective enforcement of laws duly passed by Congress abound. Among those cited by legal experts Elizabeth Slattery and Andrew Kloster:
- Abdicating the Administration’s duty to defend and enforce federal laws.
- Gutting the work requirement from welfare reform.
- Implementing the DREAM Act granting amnesty to some illegal immigrants by executive fiat.
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“We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” Obama announced last month.
It is inconceivable that such words would have ever come out of President Washington’s mouth. The current occupant of the White House may want to take some time today to read up on how our first and greatest President understood his role.
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