The next time a cashier asks “paper or plastic?” think of Abbie Schoenwetter. He spent more than six years in federal confinement for shipping lobster in plastic instead of cardboard.
There’s no American law against doing so. But thanks to a vague, overly broad, and otherwise unjust federal criminal law, the U.S. government claimed it was upholding a Honduran regulation.
Abbie Schoenwetter’s business, health, and family life (he has a wife and three kids) were wiped out because unreasonable federal prosecutors used an unjust law to target Abbie and a Honduran fisherman from whom Abbie purchased his seafood.
He’s finally free now. But he notes that “The worst thing anybody can do to you is take away your freedom.”
Indeed, the purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to secure the rights and liberties promised in the Declaration of Independence.
Today, though, the federal government has acquired a nearly unquestioned dominance over virtually every area of American life.
The scope and depth of its rules means that the national government increasingly regulates more and more of our most basic activities, from how much water is in our toilets to what kind of light bulbs we can buy. This is a government that is increasingly unlimited, undemocratic, and damaging to popular self-government.
Conservatives want to restore real limits on a government that is out of control.
This will not occur all at once or across the board. Nor will it result from one judicial decision, presidential order, or comprehensive piece of legislation. We will be strategic, defining and pursuing a realistic path that measurably reintroduces constitutional limits—by focusing government on its primary obligations, restoring its responsibility and democratic accountability, and correcting its worst excesses.
America’s Opportunity for All, Heritage’s new plan that we have been highlighting all week, includes rebuilding constitutional self-government. Some sensible steps include:
- Policymakers should execute the law, not simply make it up. The President, judges, and Members of Congress all take oaths to uphold the Constitution in carrying out the responsibilities of their offices. That means the President should appoint, and the Senate should use its advice and consent role to confirm, only constitutionally faithful judges. Also, judges increasingly seek to impose their own policy preferences on the nation. Candidates and officeholders should promote robust debate regarding the importance of approving constitutionalist judges.
- Reverse the explosion of federal criminal law. Congress must halt the overcriminalization rampage and begin to eliminate vague, overbroad criminal offenses that punish individuals who, without criminal intent, violate one of these innumerable federal statutes.
- Dismantle the administrative state. Administrative agencies and vast bureaucracies operate as an unelected fourth branch of government. Congress should reassert its authority by taking responsibility for all laws and regulations that govern us.
- Build support for limited government. For too long, Congress has passed massive laws written behind closed doors, filled with arcane cross-references that most Members of Congress neither read nor understand. Our leaders should legislate clearly and openly. Each House of Congress should adopt a rule requiring the public posting of the text of each bill and major amendment not less than 72 hours before floor debate on that bill or amendment.
- Encourage federalism. Work with state legislatures and governors, especially to slow the implementation of Obamacare and instead develop real health care solutions that work.
How does the government meddle in your life? Tell us in the comments.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Heritage’s vice president for American Studies and director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.