Today America witnessed history in the making. For the first time since its ratification in 1789, the U.S. Constitution was actually read aloud in the House of Representatives by members of the 112th Congress. Its seems as though the call to return to constitutional government has been heard. On December 15, 2010 C-Span aired a discussion hosted by the Bill of Rights Institute on interpreting the U. S. Constitution (http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/297104-1). Featured speaker Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow at Claremont Institute and a senior editor for the American Spectator, likened the current popular demand for constitutional restraint on government to challenges made by Protestant reformers on the Catholic Church. As more everyday Americans are reading the Constitution, they question the dominant view held by those in government that the meaning of the U.S. Constitution is a matter of contemporary, situational interpretation.
Quoting Codevilla, “If in fact a judge or anybody, anybody can choose when and if words mean something, it is because they’ve already decided they mean nothing… If I can decide when the words of a document mean something and when they don’t, it is only because I am the decider, not the words themselves. The words themselves are important only in so far as I deem them so from time to time, as fits my needs.” But as average folks read the Constitution, they believe it means what it says. Codevilla continued, “…to them, why the words mean what they say… The effect of this is to set up a clash, not unlike the clash that took place between the clerics of the Catholic Church and ordinary people, when radicals like Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, etc. put it into the peoples’ heads to actually read the Scriptures themselves. And when they read the Scriptures themselves, they said by golly, you know, there’s nothing in there about indulgences. There’s nothing in there about all sorts of things the Church says is absolutely essential.”
And so our newly elected Representatives at least gave lip service today, to the words of our Constitution. But, as in all political endeavors, it was not without some travail. Before the reading began, much was made of a “parliamentary inquiry” which sought to clarify how it was determined which parts of the Constitution were to be read and which parts were not to be read. Personally, I was outraged at such tactics. Those parts of the original Constitution which have either been removed or altered, are no longer part of the Constitution, and there is no reason for reading them. Specifically, those parts of the Constitution which supported slavery and counted a slave as 3/5ths of a person were struck down by the 13th amendment in 1865. And there was appropriate (if not gratuitous) applause when that amendment was read.
This type of political gamesmanship gets in the way of meaningful government. In fact, it is the antithesis of statesmanship. It was the Republicans who came up with the idea of reading the Constitution. The Democrats, in an attempt to make the Republicans look bad, tried to associate the institution of slavery to the Constitution, and by association, to the Republicans. It’s an ugly game that has been played for a long time. Though I am not a Republican apologist (I’m not even a Republican.), I challenge anyone who doubts their history of strong leadership in civil rights to read Ben Kinchlow’s “BLACK YELLOWDOGS, The Most Dangerous Citizen Is Not Armed, But Uninformed”. The political party that really should be ashamed of its civil rights record is the Democrats, not the Republicans. On pages 56 and 57 of his book, Kinchlow explains the congressional vote for the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, that gave us the “equal protection” clause. 96% of Republicans in the Senate and 94% of Republicans in the House voted for passage of the 14th amendment. 0% of Democrats in either house voted for passage.
But that was then. This is now. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, one member from Oregon getting sworn in on the spot so he could participate. He had missed yesterday’s swearing in ceremony. I think they all got to read a small portion of the document. Paragraphs were broken up into shorter pieces for multiple readers and even some sentences were broken up at semi-colons so that everyone got to participate. As Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) read her bit, I wondered if she was learning anything. During Michael Jackson’s funeral service, she had made the statement that those in Congress understand what the Constitution means, then went on to say it meant that a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty. That is a principle of American jurisprudence, but you won’t find it in the Constitution. Maybe now, after hearing it read, she understands what it means. Then again, maybe not.
As each representative walked up to the podium and read his or her assigned portion, I followed along with the old copy I’ve had since 1976. It’s all marked up with comments and highlights. I didn’t realize it was so old until they read the last amendment, which was missing from my copy. The 27th amendment was passed 16 years after my copy of the Constitution was printed! I paused the TV and wrote it in by hand. When Article II, Section 1, paragraph 4 was read (the part that says the President must be a “natural born citizen”) a woman in the gallery caused a brief interruption when she shouted out something about Obama. As I was reading along, I noticed the phrase, “or a citizen of the United States” which I find quite interesting. On the one hand it appears to say that any citizen of the United States (given age and residency requirements) is qualified to serve as President. On the other hand, if Obama wasn’t actually born here, was he ever officially naturalized?
But it was another horribly disappointing moment that wrenched my attention. It was when my Representative, George Miller of California, got up to read. George Miller has held this office since 1975. His departure is long over due, but the voters keep sending him back. He’s another example of what’s wrong with Congress. All the Representatives did a yeoman’s job at the podium, reading their assigned portions of the Constitution. Oh, there were a few mispronunciations, a few errors, but nothing major… until it was George Miller’s turn. The person before him had just finished reading the second paragraph of the 22nd amendment. Miller then got up and read the second paragraph of the 22nd amendment again! The third paragraph wasn’t read because that’s what George had been assigned to read. The next reader just went on to the 23rd amendment. Don’t get me wrong. In the big scheme of things this is insignificant. However, it just irked me that out of 435 Representatives, the only inept reader was mine — not just from my State but from my own District.
Yet all in all, it was a good experience. Good for me, good for our Congress and hopefully good for our country. It didn’t get anything done, in terms of passing laws, but it set a tone and hopefully got some lawmakers thinking about what their responsibilities and motivations should be. Now we need to keep their feet to the fire!