I started thinking about the tea party movement. It is a remarkable political event, whether or not you favor it. It is not really a party, has no paid organizers, officers or money-raising apparatus. It was started by housewives and ignited by an impassioned remark by Rick Santelli, a commentator few people had heard of, on an early morning television program directed to the stock market and to which a minuscule part of the population listens.
Its followers are from all ranks of economic, political and social groups. Yet with such an inauspicious resume, it profoundly affected the November elections at all levels and may have altered history.
The question in my mind was how could this happen, particularly in light of our entrenched two-party system awash in money, political operatives and strong interest groups.
One thing was clear. The tea partiers were reacting strongly against actions of the federal government and particularly against massive spending, bailouts and the health insurance law called Obamacare. But opposition to government programs is not unusual and rarely, if ever, has given birth to such a movement, certainly not with such spontaneity.
So it seemed to me there was something deeper going on. This led me to think about the federal government and its relationship to us. This led directly to the Constitution.
The basic purpose of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and of the Constitution, was to grant political power to a new central government. That simple fact is often lost in teaching, which focuses on the secondary, but important, questions of how the granted powers were to be exercised by the central government.
During the Constitutional Convention there was quick and general agreement that the central government should not be given general overall political power, as was the European model. The central government was to have only limited powers.
Of crucial importance to all following American law and political history, the Convention decided the central government was to have only those powers specifically granted. Without debate and seemingly as an unimportant detail at the end of the enumerated powers, they included the authority to make laws ''necessary and proper for carrying into execution'' the enumerated powers. This seemingly innocuous clause has been at the heart of much subsequent constitutional litigation.
The matters concerning which the congress was given the authority to legislate include only: taxes, duties, imposts and excises which must be uniform throughout the country (income taxes were not authorized until the 16th Amendment was adopted in 1913); borrowing money; regulating commerce with foreign nations and ''among the several states,'' and with Indian tribes; naturalization and bankruptcy; money and weights and measures; counterfeiting; post offices; copyright and patents; establishing federal courts inferior to the supreme court; piracy and crimes against international law; declaration of war; support of armies and a navy; calling forth a militia to execute laws and repel invasions; the laws of the seat of government; and erection of military facilities on land purchased from the states.
The balance of the provisions dealing with legislative powers is a list of restrictions on the exercise of those powers.
An important matter appears in the preamble to the Constitution. The preamble with beautiful simplicity states, ''We the people of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.'' It was the people granting authority to the government.
As it turned out, because of fears that the central government would attempt to expand its powers beyond those granted, ratification could not be obtained until 10 amendments were agreed to be adopted. They came to be known as the Bill of Rights.
For purposes of this discussion, the two most pertinent 10 amendments are numbers nine and 10. They underscore the limitation of powers granted the central government. At least equally important they make it abundantly clear that it is the people granting rights to the government, and not that it is the government that has rights it grants to the people.
These two amendments read as follows:
Ninth: The enumeration in the Constitution and certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Tenth: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
With this history in mind, the tea party movement comes into focus. I submit it reflects a substantial number of citizens feeling that large spending increases, bailouts and the extension of central government authority encompassed in Obamacare were an improper extension of the authority of the central government. That feeling may well be intensified by the rushed manner of passage of 2,000-page bills, which no member of congress read or could be said to fully understand. This procedure violates at least the spirit of congressional proceedings included in Article I of the Constitution.
The tea party movement may be wrong or it may be right, but so viewed it has a pedigree that traces back to the Constitutional Convention. It is not extreme, it raises genuine and quintessential American issues, and is in the mainstream of American political history.
Letson is a Warren resident and attorney.