Reading the Constitution on the House floor


Author: Timothy Sandefur

Today, for the first time, the House of Representatives opened with a reading of the full text of the Constitution. This symbolic move is refreshing to those of us who take the Constitution seriously, and it’s sad to see that some people find it objectionable. One writer at Salon complained that the Republicans didn’t read the clauses that have been repealed such as the 3/5ths clause…. The point being, I guess, that the Constitution “was written by flawed men,” and therefore—can be ignored? One Congressman was even quoted as complaining that Republicans considering repealing ObamaCare should pay heed to the General Welfare clause—as if that provision gives Congress carte blanche authority. No, Congressman, the federal government is one of limited, enumerated powers—you and your colleagues do not have power to do whatever you think is a good idea.

And yet, there is some truth in the Democrats’ accusation that Republicans are grandstanding. The GOP, after all, has shown just as much contempt for the Constitution as Democrats, and despite their small government rhetoric, they have shown little serious commitment to reevaluating the vast, unconstitutional machinery of the modern Regulatory Welfare State. Indeed, they have expanded it. Even Ronald Reagan, the new Saint of Small Government, actually fattened the Welfare State dramatically while in office. His successor, George Bush, Sr., signed the Americans with Disabilities Act; his son expanded Medicare, championed No Child Left Behind, and oversaw a radically unconstitutional government takeover of the banking and automobile industries. And the less said about the Nixon Administration’s contempt for the Constitution—in everything from environmental law to a “war on drugs” that depended entirely on New Deal commerce clause precedents—the better. Nor does the newly invigorated Republican party show any real intention of dismantling the unconstitutional bureaucracies already in existence. Democrats are right to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy—but what else is new?

If reading the Constitution has any positive effect, it will be in reminding the citizens of the fact that the federal government doesn’t exist to solve our problems, or to pay some people money taken from others. It exists for a limited set of specified reasons, and anything not listed is beyond the government’s powers. We recently commemorated Bill of Rights Day, and pointed to James Madison’s explanation of the role that the Bill of Rights plays in the constitutional structure:

in a monarchy the latent force of the nation is superior to that of the sovereign, and a solemn charter of popular rights must have a great effect, as a standard for trying the validity of public acts, and a signal for rousing & uniting the superior force of the community; whereas in a popular Government, the political and physical power may be considered as vested in…a majority of the people, and consequently the tyrannical will of the sovereign is not to be controuled by the dread of an appeal to any other force within the community. What use then…can a bill of rights serve…?  I answer…The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion. 2….a bill of rights will be a good ground for an appeal to the sense of the community.

It’s long past time that the good sense of the American community was roused, to return to the fundamental principles of constitutional government and individual freedom.