Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer

In 1992, United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor enunciated an axiomatic principle of constitutional governance, that the Constitution “protects us from our own best intentions,” dividing power precisely so that we might resist the temptation to concentrate that power as “the expedient solution to the crisis of the day.”[1] It is a sentiment that echoes through American history, as there has been a constant “push-pull” between the demands of the populace and the divisions and restrictions on power as laid out by the Constitution.

Before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term, the concept of a 100-Day agenda simply didn’t exist. But, since 1933, incoming new administrations have been measured by that arbitrary standard—what they plan on accomplishing in those first hundred days, and what they actually accomplished.

The problem, of course, is that public policy decision making should not only be a thorough and deliberative process, but in order to protect the rights of the public, must allow for significant public input. Without that deliberation, without that public participation, significant mistakes can be made. This is why policy made in a crisis is almost always bad policy—and thus Justice O’Connor’s vital warning.

FDR came into office with America under its most significant crisis since the Civil War. Nearly three and a half years into an economic disaster—nearly a quarter of the population was out of work, banks and businesses were failing, millions of Americans were completely devastated and looking for real answers.

The 1932 presidential election was driven by this crisis. Incumbent President Herbert Hoover was seen as a “do-nothing” president, whose efforts at stabilizing the economy through tariffs and tax increases hadn’t stemmed the economic tide of the Great Depression. FDR had built a reputation as governor of New York for action, and on the campaign trail raised a series of ambitious plans that he intended to enact that he called “The New Deal.” Significant portions of this New Deal were to be enacted during those first 100 days in office.

This set a standard that later presidents would be held to: what they wanted to accomplish during those first hundred days, and how those goals might compare to the goals laid out by FDR.

At the core of those enactments were the creation of three major federal programs: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Industrial Recovery Administration. Of these three, the FDIC remains in existence today, with its mission largely unchanged: to guarantee the monetary accounts of bank customers, and, in doing so, ensure that banks aren’t closed down because of customers suddenly withdrawing all their money from a bank and closing their accounts.

This had happened with great frequency following the stock market crash of 1929—and such panicked activity was known, popularly, as a “bank run.”[2]

FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. On March 6, he closed the entire American banking system! Three days later, on March 9, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act—which essentially created the FDIC. Three days later, on Sunday, March 12, FDR gave the first of his “fireside chats,” assuring the nation that when the banks re-opened the following day, the federal government would be protecting Americans’ money.

But there were massive questions over the constitutionality of much of FDR’s New Deal proposals, and many of them were challenged in federal court. At the same time, a number of states were also attempting their own remedies for the nation’s economic morass—and in challenges to some of those policies, the Supreme Court upheld them, citing a new and vast interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, with sweeping ramifications.

In the Blaisdell Case[3], the Supreme Court upheld a Minnesota law that essentially suspended the ability of mortgage holders from collecting mortgage monies or pursuing remedies when monies had not been paid.  The court said that due to the severe national emergency created by the Great Depression, government had vast and enormous power to deal with it.

But critics have understood the serious and longstanding ramifications of such decisions. Adjunct Scholar at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and NYU law professor Richard Epstein said of Blaisdell that, “trumpeted a false liberation from the constitutional text that has paved the way for massive government intervention that undermines the security of private transactions. Today the police power exception has come to eviscerate the contracts clause.”

In other words—in a conflict between the rights of private parties under the contracts clause and the power of government under the commerce clause, when it comes to emergencies, the power of government wins.

Interestingly enough, due to a series of New Deal programs that had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, in 1937, FDR attempted to change the make-up of the court in what became known as the “court-packing scheme.” The proposal essentially called for remaking the balance of the court by appointing an additional justice (up to six additional) for every justice who was over the age of 70 years and 6 months.

Though the legislation languished in Congress, the pressure was brought to bear on the Supreme Court and Associate Justice Owen Roberts began casting votes in support of FDR’s New Deal programs—fundamentally shifting the direction of federal power towards concentration, a shift that continued until the early 1990s, when the high court began issuing decisions (like New York v. United States) that limited the power of the federal government and the expansive interpretation of the commerce clause.

But it’s the sweeping power for the federal government to act within a declared emergency, and the impact of the policies that are created within that crisis that is of continued concern. Much in the same way that the lack of deliberation during FDR’s first 100 days led to programs that had sweeping and lasting impact on public life, and created huge unintended consequences, we are seeing those same mistakes played out today—the declaration of a public emergency, sweeping polices created without any real deliberation and public input, and massive (and devastating consequences) to businesses, jobs, and society in general.

If we are to learn anything from those first hundred days, it should be that we shouldn’t let a deliberative policy process be hijacked, and certainly not for political reasons. Moreover, when polices are enacted without deliberation, we should be prepared for the potential consequences of that policy… and adjust those policies accordingly when new information presents itself (and when the particular crisis has passed). Justice O’Connor was correct—the Constitution does protect us from our own best intentions.

We should rely on it, especially when we are in a crisis.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.  He teaches in the Public Policy program at the College of William and Mary.

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[1] New York v. US, 505 US 144 (1992)

[2] Bank runs were so engrained in the national mindset that Frank Capra dramatized one in his famous film, It’s A Wonderful Life. In it, the Bedford Falls Bank is the victim of a run and “saved” by the film’s antagonist, Mr. Potter.  Potter offers to “guarantee” the Bailey Building and Loan, but, knowing it would give Potter Control, the film’s hero, George Bailey, uses his own money to keep his firm intact.

[3] Home Building and Loan Association v Blaisdell, 290 US 398 (1934)

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