As we approach the first round of presidential primaries this January, here's a list of questions I'd ask candidates from both parties:
— A recent study found that over half the country now derives part or all of its income from the federal government. Three of the richest counties in the country are in the D.C. suburbs, a telling indicator of just how bloated with taxpayer dollars Washington has become. Do you think these trends are healthy? Would you agree or disagree that the federal government is getting too large, too influential, and too pervasive?
— The government is made up of people—flawed people, just as the private sector is. But when private people make mistakes, the consequences are limited to them, and perhaps a few people around them. When a government official makes a mistake, it can affect millions. Isn't it better to let the American people make as many of their own decisions as possible? What makes a government bureaucrat more qualified to make decisions about the average Americans life than the average American?
—Name five government agencies that are either superfluous, anachronistic, ineffective, or otherwise no longer necessary, and that you would eliminate? To make things interesting, let's take everything under the Department of Defense off the table, with the acknowledgment that there's plenty of cutting to be done there, too.
— What is your philosophical approach to federalism? What issues do you feel are best decided at the national level? What issues should be left to the states? Is there any underlying principle you use in separating one from the other, or would you make such decisions ad hoc?
—Do you believe the U.S. military should be deployed for humanitarian missions?
—The U.S. currently has troops on 6,000 bases spread out over 135 countries. Do you believe this is a good or bad thing? If bad, from what countries would you remove U.S. troops?
—Do you think an atheist could be president? Do you think an atheist should be? Assuming you generally agreed with an atheist on more issues than the alternative candidates in a given election, would you vote for one?
—Name five things you think are none of the federal government's business.
—What is your view of the pardon power and executive clemency? Should it be used frequently? Should it be use to show mercy and forgiveness or to correct injustices that slip through the cracks? Neither? Both?
—Do you think the criminal justice system is adequate in its present form? Do our criminal courts achieve the just outcome in an acceptable percentage of cases?
—When the two are in conflict, do you believe a politician is obligated to vote for his own principles and values, or for the will of the people?
—Is there any type of speech you believe should be criminalized?
—Do you promise not to claim for yourself any of the executive powers you've criticized the Bush administration for claiming?
—Do you think it's appropriate that the minority party in the senate can filibuster the majority? Would your position change if your party was in the minority?
—What is your position on Kelo vs. New London? Under what circumstances would it be appropriate for a government to seize land from one private party and give it to another?
—If elected, will you fire all of the U.S. attorneys appointed by President Bush?
—What federal crimes will you instruct the Justice Department to make a priority during your administration?
—Do you think a journalist should ever be tried for treason for making public classified information?
—America by far and away has the highest prison population in the world. Does this concern you? Are there any federal crimes you feel should be repealed from the books, or devolved to the states?
—Should violations of regulatory law be criminalized? That is, should people go to jail for violating EPA, OSHA, or other regulations? Or should they merely be fined?
—What's your philosophical approach to risk assessment and the precautionary principle? Do you think government should ban products, treatments, and procedures until they're proven safe, or permit them until they show signs of being unsafe?
—Do you think it's a legitimate function of government to protect people from making bad decisions or prevent them from developing bad habits? Even if those habit or decisions don't directly affect anyone else? How far should the government go in preventing bad habits and bad decisions? In other words, should the government's role be merely advisory, or should it criminalize things like gambling, pornography, drug use, or trans fats?
—Should members of Congress be required to follow all of the laws that they pass?
—Should members be required to read each bill before voting on it?
—Should federal law supercede the will of the people in a given state when it comes to medical marijuana? Assisted suicide? How about the regulation of prescription painkillers?
—Would you support a requirement that each law be limited in scope and subject, so members wouldn't be required to cast a single yes-or-no vote on bills that have multiple amendments covering a variety of issues?
—Would you support a sunset provision requiring Congress to revisit and re-pass each law after five years?
—Do think presidents should be term limited? What about members of Congress? If you didn't give the same answer to each question, what's the difference?
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.