A hundred years ago, the crew of Titanic learned just how difficult it can be to turn a great vessel. They spotted an iceberg and tried to turn the ship, but couldn't change course quickly enough to avoid a collision. A wonder of human engineering was doomed; not because of its design but because of the way it was handled.
The 2012 elections could mark a similar turning point in American history. We see serious threats dead ahead: soaring federal debt, unsustainable entitlement programs, unaccountable bureaucrats.
This year we will decide if the country is to continue along the path of unlimited government, or whether we will begin a long, slow turn back toward the principles of limited constitutional government.
The U.S. is unique, a wonder of political design. Ours is a republic dedicated to the universal principles of human liberty: that all are created equal and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Our government exists to secure these God-given rights, and it derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Our Constitution limits the power of government under the rule of law, creating a vigorous framework for expanding economic opportunity, protecting our independence and securing liberty and justice for all.
Today, though, the federal government has acquired an all but unquestioned dominance over virtually every area of American life. The federal 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 unlimited by any organizing principle, meddling in almost every facet of our lives.
Let us count the ways that Washington is ignoring its constitutional limits.
As part of his re-election campaign, President Obama has launched an effort called "We Can't Wait" to highlight steps he's taken to bypass Congress. Obama's idea seems to be that the president, charged with the execution of the laws, doesn't have to wait for the lawmaking branch to make, amend or abolish the laws — that he can, and should, act on his own.
This violates the spirit, and potentially the letter, of the Constitution's separation of the legislative and executive powers of Congress and the president.
For its part, Congress has also failed to fulfill its constitutional duties. Under the current leadership, it's been more than three years since the U.S. Senate even passed a budget. And under Republican leadership in 2003, the House of Representatives unethically kept a voting window open for three hours (instead of the scheduled 15 minutes) so party leaders could twist arms, change minds and ram through the Medicare Part D entitlement.
Even worse, Congress has fallen into the habit of handing its legislative power over to vast bureaucracies. Today, the majority of "laws" are actually rules and regulations promulgated by agencies and bureaucracies.
Recent examples include the massive Dodd-Frank financial regulation and, of course, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Congress has drafted laws that nobody bothered to read before voting on. These measures stretch to hundreds of pages, yet only laid out broad parameters and empowered career bureaucrats to write the actual policies that Americans will be forced to comply with.
As a result, key policy decisions that were previously the constitutional responsibility of elected legislators are delegated to administrators whose rules have the full force and effect of laws passed by Congress. These bureaucracies serve as an unelected, unaccountable fourth branch of government.
Paring back the administrative state will take years. But it's the first step to measurably reintroduce constitutional limits by focusing government on its primary obligations, restoring its responsibility and democratic accountability and correcting its worst excesses.
If our political leaders begin confining themselves to the limited powers the Constitution gives them, America will once again be on the principled path to liberty, opportunity and constitutional self-government.
We'll find out this year whether our political leaders are ready to steer the ship of state back on course, or whether they're committed to sailing our country full speed into the dangerous waters ahead. The very future of our constitutional republic hangs in the balance.
Matthew Spalding is vice president of American studies at The Heritage Foundation.