Tentherism: The Bizarre Ideology Behind Tea Partiers' Plans to Kill Social Security and Child Labor Laws

More than seventy years ago, the Supreme Court abandoned a brief, disastrous experiment with "tentherism," a constitutional theory that early twentieth century justices wielded to protect monopolies, strip workers of their right to organize and knock down child labor laws. This discredited constitutional theory is back -- with a vengeance -- endangering MedicareSocial Security, the minimum wage and even the national highway system and America's membership in the United Nations. For the first time in three generations, the right is fielding a slate of candidates convinced that any attempt to better the lives of ordinary Americans violates the Constitution -- while a number of sitting lawmakers such as Reps. John Shadegg (R-AZ) andDonald Manzullo (R-IL) are already actively pushing tentherism from within the Congress. Make no mistake, this agenda threatens all Americans, from the youngest schoolchild to the most venerable retirees.



SLAMMING SCHOOLHOUSE DOORS: Tentherism's core tenet is that the 10th Amendment must be read too narrowly to permit much of the progress of the last century. Thus, for example, because the Constitution doesn't actually use the word "education" -- it instead gives Congress broad authority to spend money to advance the "common defense" and "general welfare" -- Senate candidates like Ken Buck (R-CO) and Sharron Angle (R-NV) claim that the federal Department of Education is unconstitutional. That means no federal student loan assistance or Pell Grants for middle class students struggling to pay for college, and no education funds providing opportunities to students desperately trying to break into the middle class. And that's hardly the worst news tenthers have in store for young Americans. Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller wants to declare child labor laws unconstitutional -- returning America to the day when ten-year-olds labored in coal mines.


THANKLESS LABOR: Tenther candidates have even worse plans for working age Americans. Miller and West Virginia GOP Senate candidate John Raese both claim that the federal minimum wage is unconstitutional -- a position the Supreme Court unanimously rejected in 1941. If you're a person of color or a woman or a person of faith than you are also out of luck, because Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paulagrees with Justice Clarence Thomas that the ban on employment and pay discrimination is unconstitutional (don't try to get a meal on your lunch break either, because both men feel the same way about the ban on whites-only lunch counters). Significantly, the constitutional doctrine which supports the minimum wage is the same one which supports child labor laws and bans on discrimination, so when a candidate comes out in opposition to any one of these laws, it is likely that they oppose all of them. To top this all off, Alaska's Miller even claims that unemployment benefits violate the Constitution, so Americans who are unable to find work in the new tenther regime will simply be cast out into the cold.


AN IMPOVERISHED RETIREMENTSocial Security may be the most successful program in American history. Without it, nearly half of all seniors would live below the poverty line. Yet, because words like "retirement" don't specifically appear in the Constitution, tenthers think that Social Security is forbidden. Indeed, Social Security has not just been labeled unconstitutional by specific GOP candidates, the Republican Party's "Pledge To America" embraces a tenther understanding of the Constitution which endangers both Social Security and Medicare. Tenthers respond to claims that they would abolish America's entire safety net for seniors by pointing out that state governments could still create their own retirement programs, but such a state takeover of retirement programs is economically impossible unless America forbids its citizens from retiring in a different state than the one that they paid taxes in while working. Some tenther candidates have also suggested that Social Security can survive so long as it is privatized, but privatization wouldimpose significant new risks on seniorscreate new administrative costs, force benefit reductions and cost more money than the present system. In other words, the right has a simple plan for American families: making sure that everyone at the dinner table is completely on their own.

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