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Panelists Disagree on Role of Federal Government

by Myra Saturen
November 29, 2012

Speakers presented different views of "Federal Government: A Strong Vision or Limited Power?" Federal Government Panelistsduring a panel discussion November 28 in Northampton Community College's Lipkin Theatre.

The event was part of a year-long exploration of  "The American Presidency" made possible by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, matched by generous donors. 

Dr. Brian Alnutt, assistant professor of history, moderated the discussion.  The panelists were Matthew J. Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Awareness; Blake C. Marles, chair of the Higher Education Group at Stevens & Lee; Alan L. Jennings, executive director, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, Inc.; and Karen D. Dolan, Bethlehem City Councilwoman and CEO & executive director of Gertrude B. Fox Environmental Center at Illick's Mill

Alnutt began the evening by posing the central issue:  What is the appropriate role of the federal government--should it be strong, assertive and hands-on or rather laissez faire, limited and hands-off?  He noted that this fundamental debate goes back to disagreement between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who called themselves "fighting roosters,"  Hamilton a federalist and Jefferson an anti-federalist. 

Guided by Alnutt's questions, the panel discussion ranged over deeply debated philosophies that continue to resonate today.

For example, what are the benefits of an active, strong central government and those of a government with more limited in power?  Both perspectives were examined.  Marles, for instance, indicated that mobilization of U.S. armed forces was appropriate when America faced an existential threat from the Axis powers during World War II.  On the other hand, he supports less government activity in matters that demand efficiency and innovation--the existence of the Department of Energy, for one. 

Dolan cited the GI Bill, signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, as an example of a strong federal government taking on an appropriate activity.  She noted that the bill stirred great controversy in Congress at the time.  To the contrary, she believes that in the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and signed by President Bill Clinton, the federal government overstepped its boundaries. 

Brouillette opined that the expansion of the federal government powers has hindered progress by moving into areas in which it is incompetent, such as defining of marriage.  "The federal government won't solve problems; problem-solving will happen at the state level," he said.

Jennings pointed to the Great Society of the 1960s as an example of the federal government actively pursuing the role of federal government in improving lives, leveling the playing field and making opportunity available to all.  As an instance of strong federal power used inappropriately, he invoked government spying on American citizens in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

The panel was also asked to delineate one way in which the Constitution defines the correct parameters of government.  Jennings pointed to the ability of Congress to amend the Constitution, making it adjustable as life changes.  Brouillette thinks that we have ignored the Constitution in some situations--education, for instance, should be a state and local function, according to his reasoning.  He did laud the federal government for amending the Constitution to ban slavery and to extend the vote to women. 

In answer to the question of which president panelists considered most exemplary in utilizing or not utilizing the federal government's power, Jennings singled out Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson for saving our government.  "If it were not for the hideous mistake of the War in Vietnam, LBJ would have been our greatest president," he said. 

Brouillette's favorite president is Grover Cleveland, because he upheld restraints on the federal government; Cleveland vetoed a bill appropriating seeds for a drought-stricken area of Texas. This president believed that local charitable efforts could and should solve the problem and that federal intervention was outside the federal government's scope. 

For presidents' worst handling of federal power, two of the panelists characterized Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War as making a unilateral move that was against the rules. During the question-and-answer period after the debate, Associate Professor of History Sholomo Levy, an audience member, challenged this assertion, saying that Lincoln's actions were supported by the Constitution and were necessary in regards to timing.  Secession by the southern states, was in itself unconstitutional, he said. 

Jennings placed Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover in the ranks of most disastrous presidents. 

Alnutt asked which American problem could be best alleviated by a strong or more limited central government response?  Marles claimed that it is never the right time to do something when money for the project or program is lacking.  "We are loaning ourselves out of the Social Security fund," he said, voicing concerns that the program would go bankrupt.  Brouillette posited the need for a strong leader who can help the public understand that not all endeavors are affordable and that the national debt will be passed to future generations. 

For Jennings, the most critical issue is that of climate change.  "The environmental threat is a threat to our species," he said. 

Dolan agreed that climate change poses mortal danger to the continuance of humanity, and that  the federal government is essential to eliminating this peril effectively.  "The problem is in our lap.  We have to solve it now, on federal, local and individual levels," she said. 

Spanning many issues and presidencies, the discussion illuminated the multiple ways the role of the federal government have been viewed throughout our history, lending perspective to an issue still very current. 

For future NEH programming go to northampton.edu/NEH. 

 


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