There’s no way to predict how the 2012 elections will turn out. But it will be a turning point in American history: Either our leaders will guide the country even further along the road to “progressivism” or they will begin a long, slow turn back toward the principles of the American Founding. To help our leaders make the correct choices, The Heritage Foundation is putting a marker down with a publication called Changing America’s Course that gives our political leaders recommendations on how to stay within the limits of the Constitution.

You’ve probably read Heritage’s financial proposal, Saving the American Dream, and our prescription for a Conservative foreign policy. Those ideas are crucial building blocks in our approach. But they are only parts of the larger crisis facing Americans today–the crisis of constitutional government–that Saving the American Dream deals with.

The United States is unique. Ours is a republic dedicated to the universal principles of human liberty: that all are fundamentally equal and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our government exists to secure these God-given rights, deriving 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 national 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. It acts without constitutional limits and is restricted only by expediency, political will, and (less and less) budget constraints.

The unlimited scope and depth of its rules means that 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, increasingly undemocratic and damaging to popular self-government.

For example, as part of his reelection campaign, Obama has launched an effort called “We Can’t Wait” to highlight his actions independent of Congress. This is more than the usual politics of a president running for reelection against 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 but 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 Democratic party 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 Medicare Part D.

Even worse, Congress has fallen into the habit of legislating without regard to any limits on its powers. Although the Constitution vests legislative powers in Congress, the majority of “laws” are actually promulgated by agencies and bureaucracies in the guise of “regulations.” Recent examples include the massive Dodd-Frank financial regulation and, of course, ObamaCare.

As a result, key policy decisions which were previously the constitutional responsibility of elected legislators are delegated to executive branch administrators whose rules have the full force and effect of laws passed by Congress. Having passed massive, broadly written pieces of legislation with little serious deliberation, Congress is increasingly an administrative body overseeing a vast array of bureaucratic policymakers and rule-making bodies.

Changing America’s Course charts a constitutional path to a brighter future of opportunity and independence. If our political leaders follow its recommendations and 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.

The first step is to reduce the size and scope of government and unleash the engines of economic productivity and the institutions of cultural renewal. Only then can we change America’s course, begin to get spending under control, balance the budget, and shrink our debt without increasing taxes.

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Vice President, American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.

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