Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.
In his 1987 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan clarified the difference between the U.S. Constitution and those of other countries:
“Many countries have written into their constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional? Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it’s so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the People. In those other constitutions, the government tells the people of those countries what they’re allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. ”
Last week, President Donald Trump unveiled new guidelines to help states begin to lift the social distancing guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended since mid-March. Given that state and local governments have acted in accordance with, or gone well beyond, federal guidance to this point, “stay at home” orders may begin to ease May 1 in some places but may continue for weeks or months in others.
So far, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a bipartisan approach to his interactions with the Trump administration on coronavirus issues, and I thank him for that. Gone are the days of back-and-forth lawsuits and sniping during the so-called “resistance” era of the last three years. Let’s hope this trend continues.
Our first responders are working round-the-clock to keep our communities safe. Health professionals are risking their lives on the front lines to care for our sick. Everyone from farm workers to truckers to grocery clerks are hustling to keep our families fed.
In these extraordinary times, we have also temporarily empowered our government executives to take extraordinary measures to combat the threat. I understand that these have been difficult decisions based on few good options, if any. More difficult decisions may lie ahead.
But there’s little doubt that many of these decisions have resulted in a restriction of our liberties. Businesses have been closed. Access to our Second Amendment rights, depending on where you live in California, has been curtailed. Our ability to travel has been restricted. Even our rights to peaceably assemble and exercise our religious beliefs have been limited.
Other countries’ leaders have few obstacles to putting extremely restrictive measures in place. Thankfully, this is not so in America.
“We the People” established a Constitution with a Bill of Rights that enshrines the liberties that cannot be permanently taken from us. Just because we’re in an emergency doesn’t mean we hand over our freedoms to the government absolutely and indefinitely.
It will be up to We the People to ensure these infringements are temporary.
Our U.S. Constitution sets fairly specific limits on the power of the president. These restrictions on presidential power were set in a clear reaction to the overbearing monarchy from which our country’s founders escaped. The Constitution, as President Reagan said, makes it clear that all power is inherent in the people. Most state constitutions contain similar clauses.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on our nation, Congress and President George W. Bush responded by passing a series of laws including the broad Patriot Act, which was meant to prevent future terrorist attacks. It tightly controls access to large amounts of money and access to identification cards, among other things, that the 9/11 terrorists were able to obtain for implementing their attacks.
Some of the aspects of the Patriot Act have had long-lasting or unforeseen consequences. The controversial requirement and problems associated with every American now needing a “Real ID” stems from 9/11 and the Patriot Act.
When we return to normalcy, we must review what has taken place. All of our leaders, including me, should be held accountable for the decisions we have made. This is how we ensure that the infringements on our liberties are temporary and that they were narrowly tailored to achieve the state’s interest in keeping people safe. We must do so critically and thoroughly. We must be vocal about what was unnecessary overreach, if and when that becomes clear.
Our Constitution clearly states that We the People tell government what power it has. It is vital for the future of our republic that when the emergency ends, so do the burdens on our freedoms.
Jones is the California Senate Republican caucus chair. The former Santee City Council member represents Senate District 38 in east and north San Diego County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.