John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Why is the Federal government so big anyway?

Posted on June 18, 2014
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If you ever have any hopes of diminishing the power of Washington, you need to have an understanding as to why it has grown so large in the first place.

Some might cynically say that it is Washington bureaucrats that have deviously worked to expand the power of central government, but usually government grows in response to the request of those who vote.

Here are some turning points in our national history that helped to expand the size of the Federal government.



Establishing the Capitol on Potomac:  It was the compromise of 1790 that achieved Alexander Hamilton’s vision of centralized government power.  Here was the deal.   Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume all of the debt of the state governments, giving the Feds the responsibility to manage that debt and thus giving power to the Congress to raise taxes and otherwise take steps to pay off it off.  Southern politicians wanted the Capitol to be located somewhere other than New York City, and as far South as possible.  Thus the North got what it wanted, which was a more power central government, and the South got it wanted, a Southern-based Capitol.

The Louisiana Purchase:  Thomas Jefferson didn’t have the power to buy that vast territory to the west of the Mississippi, but it was a deal he couldn’t in good conscience pass up.  So he went and sinned bravely.   The result was a precedent that couldn’t ever be put back in the box.  The President will act when the interests of the American people demand it, no matter what the Constitution might expressly say.

The American System:  After the War of 1812, Henry Clay and the Whig Party promoted policies that dramatically increased the power of the federal government, from establishing the Second National Bank to raising tariffs to make American-made products more competitive, and to building roads to make it easier to get agriculture products from the West to the Eastern market.

The Destruction of the Peculiar Institution:  Our Founding Fathers knew that slavery was incompatible with freedom, but they could never find a way to end it through political means.  It took the Federal Government to forcefully end what Kenneth Stamp called “The Peculiar Institution”, through armed action.   That was the end of “States Rights” as a viable governing option.

Trust-Busting:  So-called Robber Barons created monopolies in the Gilded Age, and it took Teddy Roosevelt and his theories on trust-busting to stop the Robber Barons from having their way with the American economy.  Roosevelt promised an activist government that helped to usher in the progressive age in American politics.   Government didn’t just sit idly by and let the free market work.  It tried to manage the economy, stop anti-competitive behavior by big monopolies (mostly Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company), and take steps to limit depressions and regulate the currency.

The Sinking of Lusitania:  America’s entry in the First World War helped to dramatically increase the size and scope of the Federal government.  Woodrow Wilson’s decision to help the English and the French wasn’t popular with the Germans and the Irish, and as a result, the Feds increased their surveillance of these communities.   After the war, the American Security State didn’t just go away, as J Edgar Hoover helped to create the modern FBI.

Carry Nation:  In 1920, thanks to the efforts of the famous temperance movement leader, America enacted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.  While Prohibition turned out to be the worst idea in the history of American government, it rapidly expanded the size of the federal government to pry into the private lives of American citizens.

Black Tuesday:  Not to be confused with Black Friday, Black Tuesday marks the official start of the Great Depression.  The depths of the Depression were deeper and more troubling than previous economic busted bubbles, and it ushered in a new era of government intervention into the marketplace through FDR’s New Deal.

Pearl Harbor:  World War II changed the character of America.  Washington dictated how much sugar a household could buy, how much gas it could use, how much food it could consume.  It mandated wages and regulated markets.  After the war, many of those market restrictions were eased, but not all of them.

Ike’s Highway System:  In the aftermath of the war, President Eisenhower made it his mission to build a highway system like he saw in Germany.  That became even more critical as the Cold War heated up and internal security became even more important to the American people.

Jim Crow:  The Federal government had no choice but to intervene in how Southern States treated their black citizens.  That, of course, expanded the size and power of the Federal government.

Kennedy’s Assassination:  It is highly unlikely that JFK would have been as successful at transforming the American welfare state as LBJ was.  Kennedy may have had an appreciation for the poor, but he didn’t share the passion that energized Johnson who grew up dirt poor in Texas. Kennedy was by his nature cautious and far more conservative than Johnson, who saw in his Great Society program his historic destiny.

Lake Erie Burning:  In the last 1960’s, the Cuyahoga River caught fire as it flowed into one of the Great Lakes, and it so repulsed the average American, that it sparked the environmental movement.   As a result, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 1973 Oil Embargo:  When OPEC countries banded together to get limit the flow of Oil to the west, the result was bigger government.  Richard Nixon created the Department of Energy, the government once again rationed gas prices and the Strategic Oil Reserve was created.

The Evil Empire:  Ronald Reagan promised to shrink the size of government and to topple the Soviet Union.   He gets credit for toppling the Soviet Union, but he did so by rapidly increasing the size of our military.

September 11th:  The attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon sparked a huge building spree of the Washington defense and intelligence industries.  We invaded two countries as a result of the 9/11 attacks and created the Department of Homeland Security.

The Financial Crisis of 2007-2008:   We are still feeling the impacts of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the meltdown on Wall Street.  But surely bigger government was one everlasting legacy.   George Bush signed TARP and bailout out General Motors, but that was only the beginning.  The financial crisis helped to usher in the Presidency of Barack Obama, and in two short years, he signed into law a huge stimulus package,  a Dodd-Frank law those imposes all kinds of new regulations of the financial sector and of course, Obamacare.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and our federal government wasn’t built last week.

Our government is big for a reason and that reason is our national history.