It’s not just child-labor laws

IT’S NOT JUST CHILD-LABOR LAWS…. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) freely admits he’s opposed to federal child-labor laws. But the more one explores his radical worldview, the easier it is to understand the consequences of this ideological approach to government.

Under Lee’s vision of the Constitution, basic labor protections such as child labor laws, the minimum wage, and bans on race and gender discrimination all must be “done by state legislators, not by Members of Congress.” Yesterday, in an interview with Utah public radio host Doug Fabrizio, Lee doubled down on this call for a return to failed constitutional vision that spawned the Great Depression, suggesting that even victims of Katrina-like disasters cannot constitutionally receive aid from the federal government.

Asked if Louisiana had the capacity to deal with a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, Lee brushed off the specifics and said, “[L]ooking forward … states will prepare differently if they understand that it’s their responsibility rather than that of the federal government.” FEMA’s existence, as Lee sees it, is unconstitutional.

He went on to make the case against anti-poverty and food safety programs, all of which he considers unconstitutional.

As a matter of constitutional law, Lee’s vision is obviously quite radical. Ian Millhiser explained yesterday, “[T]he Constitution gives Congress broad authority to regulate interstate commerce and to raise and spend money to benefit the ‘general welfare.’ These two powers easily enable Congress to regulate the national food market and to provide a basic safety net to the poor and the unfortunate, regardless of what Lee may claim.”

But to reiterate a point from last week, none of this is the least bit surprising. For those who think child-labor laws are an affront to the Constitution, it stands to reason that FEMA, food-safety laws, and the Civil Right Act would have to go, too.

The problem, of course, is that this extremist, far-right vision of constitutional law is a vision that’s increasingly common in the Republican Party of the 21st century. It makes congressional policymaking and compromise all but impossible. As Paul Krugman recently explained, “Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it.”

It really wasn’t that long ago. Reagan raised taxes seven of the eight years he was in office, and expanded the size of government. Bush expanded the federal government’s role in health care. Nixon created the EPA. Eisenhower acknowledged that there are some radicals who might hate Social Security and unemployment aid, but “their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

And yet, here we are. A sitting U.S. senator is against existing child-labor laws, and few even bat an eye.

For all the talk about rhetorical excesses and partisan strife, it’s more important to appreciate why the parties are so at odds, and the extent to which Republicans reject the legitimacy of much of the government.