On the Fascinating Relevance of the United States Constitution
January 8, 2011 4 Comments
House Republicans read the Constitution of the United States on the House floor on Thursday. It is a remarkable document, the oldest living and binding document of national governance on the planet. It has never before been read on the House floor. That is perhaps a 200-year-old mistake, a misbegotten assumption of familiarity, a perennial bear-hug embrace of government’s potential, and neglect of its specified limitations.
I did not believe we confronted a true constitutional battle until Thursday. The Republican gesture was the kind of political symbolism that might have passed under the radar — but for the most illuminating reaction to it.
Liberals went nuts. The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank scolded Republicans for reading the Constitution, as amended, rather than as enacted. No comment. Vanity Fair‘s Juli Weiner, for an even more disturbing example, complains that the reading of the Constitution cost $1.1 million dollars (by calculating salaries of House members, et cetera). Now this is truly idiotic — especially when coupled with Weiner’s suggestion that this “tedious exercise” really should have been eliminated in this “era of fiscal responsibility.” To be “fiscally responsible,” Weiner evidently believes, legislators must energetically enact laws. Heaven forbid they exercise legislative restraint.
It appears we have a full-bore battle of irreconcilable sensibilities.
The point of the reading, I surmise, was to emphasize the specific enumerations of federal power — beyond which the federal government is not permitted to go. Not legislating at times, in other words, may be not only wise, but constitutionally commanded. Taking a day to do nothing to expand federal governmental power may, on occasion, be the very best use of that $1.1 million dollars we spend on the salaries of House members.
House and Senate members are elected to determine the on-going terms of governance in our nation — but they also take an oath “to preserve and defend” the U.S. Constitution. Just as judges and justices are constitutional actors in interpreting constitutional provisions at issue in specific cases before them, so legislators are constitutional actors in their obligation to satisfy themselves that legislation is grounded in the enumerated powers of the Constitution.
That legislative obligation has largely been forgotten. House Republicans wish it resurrected. It remains to be seen, as Charles Krauthammer notes, whether Congress will take the obligation seriously. But throwing the gauntlet, with what might have been an innocuous reading of the United States Constitution, is the best evidence we currently have — especially given the silliness of liberal overreaction — that limitations on federal power may have some political teeth.