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What is Government's Role?

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It’s a question that underlies most of the key debates raging in America today: what is the role of government in our daily lives?

The controversy over schools lunches is symbolic of the sharp divide in the national outlook.

The Obama Administration’s school lunch program began in 2012, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was directed by the White House to release new rules designed to boost the nutritional quality of the meals. Schools would be reimbursed an additional 6 cents per meal.

The program has not been popular. Students have, by a large measure, objected to the menu items, and waste has become widespread. Schools complain that they are losing money. Michelle Obama, the architect of the program, has fought to continue it despite its failings.

But to many, the issue is not whether the program succeeds or fails. It is whether the federal government should be involved in a matter so far removed from its traditional role, and certainly one which directly affects the autonomy of state and local governments.

The American economy continues to flounder. Unemployment remains unacceptably high. The national transportation infrastructure is crumbling. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have dramatically ramped up their militaries, as the U.S. armed forces drop to levels that encourage aggression. Terrorism is spreading to new and fertile ground, and al Qaeda controls more land than ever in the middle east. The most salient example of American high technology, the space program, can no longer put astronauts in orbit. The Air Force depends on Russian rocket engines to launch payloads.

Given these vast and urgent concerns, many believe that concentration on matters such as school lunches are not and should not be the business of the federal government.

The difference in outlook on the role of the federal government is one of the sharpest divides in U.S. history. It opens up fundamental questions about the role of the Constitution—which clearly did not envision Washington getting involved in matters traditionally left to state and local governments or within families.

Populist politicians point to issues such as school lunches or healthcare and claim that structures developed centuries ago are not relevant. They frequently propose looser interpretations of the Constitution, ignoring it altogether, or making radical changes. President Obama has vocally chafed at restrictions imposed by the concept of separation of powers enshrined in the document.

If the Constitution is ignored on these and other issues, the entire process of the American government is called into question. The position of one side—those that believe the Constitution should be strictly followed—is clear, and has a proven record of success.

But opponents of a consistent adherence to the Constitution have been less clear in what would replace what has been described as the most successful governing system ever devised. There is a legitimate concern that it opens the door to an increasingly powerful system, based on responding to the will of the leadership rather than adherence to the law.

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