Reagan Rocks was the message! On February 22, TPPF hosted an event to honor the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan. Author of the highly acclaimed, two-volume “Age of Reagan,” Dr. Steven Hayward spoke to the breakfast gathering about President Reagan’s achievement in sending Soviet Communism to the “ash heap of history” and his unfinished agenda to restrain the federal government.
Hayward emphasized the single constitutional core in Ronald Reagan’s foreign and domestic policy agendas: unlimited government is inimical to individual liberty. This unifying principle of Reagan’s statecraft is frequently overlooked because, in hindsight, Reagan’s foreign policy agenda was much more palpably successful than his domestic agenda. Throughout his eight years in office, however, President Reagan repeatedly noted that the massive regulatory reach of our federal government poses dangers to freedom similar in kind, although certainly less in degree, to Soviet communism.
According to Dr. Hayward’s book, Reagan’s was the “first inaugural address in fifty years that appealed to the idea of limited government.” The bold words in this speech were, to many, shocking words from a U.S. president. “In our present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem … It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from the unnecessary and excessive growth in government. … It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”
Dr. Hayward also directed us to Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament in 1982. “There is a threat posed to freedom by the enormous power of the modern state. History teaches the danger of government that overreaches: political control takes precedence over free economic growth; secret police, mindless bureaucracy-all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.” Although the Left would pounce on this statement as an outrageous conflation of a Gestapo with EPA staff, Reagan’s point is that a vicious secret police and the relatively more benign bureaucrats both can exercise government authority arbitrarily and without constitutional accountability.
Reagan certainly tried to restrain the federal agencies. Lack of requisite congressional support and constitutional armament, however, defeated Reagan’s objective for systemic check on the expanding federal government leviathan. Instead of broad reform, the Reagan administration settled with more selective regulatory relief in specific areas.
In the more than two decades since Reagan, the vast regulatory and administrative edifice of the federal government has steadily grown, particularly in the area of environmental regulation. In 2007, environmental regulations occupied 30,000 pages of the Federal Register compared to approximately 13,000 pages of tax regulations. Under the Obama administration, EPA regulations have exponentially increased in number, scope and stringency. Obamacare and the new financial reform law could spawn over 1000 individual rule packages.
As a former head of a large regulatory agency, I can understand why Dr. Hayward states that “Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet Empire than he was in rolling-back domestic government chiefly because the latter problem is harder.” Without significant legislative change and constitutional reform that replaces the jurisprudence inherited from the New Deal’s and Great Society’s “inexorable logic,” to use Hayward’s words, the ever-expanding federal regulatory state remains largely intractable.
Ronald Reagan powerfully articulated the problem of government grown so big that it exceeds the consent of the governed and thus exceeds the limits of a constitutional republic of enumerated powers. If the Reagan revolution is ever to prevail, Regan’s original domestic agenda must be reinvigorated. And the reform, Dr. Hayward reminds us, must be constitutional in its scope.
But look around us. A leaderless grassroots movement, similarly constitutional in tone, has arisen. In that first inaugural speech, Reagan said, “it is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” This constitutional soul of Reagan reverberates throughout Tea Party gatherings across the country.
On his 100th birthday, Ronald Reagan’s constitutional conservatism calls to us more compellingly than at any time since he left office. Let’s roll!
-Kathleen Hartnett White