In 2011, Republican lawmakers in the House passed a rule requiring any member submitting new legislation to cite specific portions of the U.S. Constitution that authorize Congress to take the action the bill proposes. This was done as part of a promised effort by Republicans to restore and preserve adherence to the Constitution, following several years of inter-party skirmishes over the separation of powers and their limits at the congressional and executive level.
They even implemented the very first reading of the entire Constitution at the opening of the 112th Congress, setting a benchmark for lawmakers and hoping to bring increasing familiarity to the founding document. That exercise was repeated again at the opening of the 113th Congress.
Members of the House, Senate and the President and Vice President are all required to take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution when being sworn into office. The Constitution and Bill of Rights ARE our nation, enshrining the principles, powers, freedoms, rights and responsibilities that bind us together as a country. People and ideas come and go in America, but this is the only constant that cements us as a nation. So when elected officials take a vow to preserve and protect the integrity of the Constitution, it is incumbent upon them to be familiar with its content and premises, and further still, to subordinate themselves to it.
Good laws have resulted from building upon this foundation. Conversely, bad ones have resulted from using other criteria (conventional “wisdom“, public sentiment, international law, and junk science, to mention a few). Who would have thought that the Constitution actually protects us from ourselves, when the public lapses into frequent periods of susceptibility to media hype, government deception and even self-deception?
Some very wise men approved the original content and wording of this document. We second-guess and underestimate them at our collective peril. House Republicans understood this, and a Washington Times review of the 3,764 bills submitted during that first year of implementation indicated a problem with the whole oath to “uphold and preserve“. Times columnist Stephen Dinan reports it this way: “Many lawmakers ignored the rule, while others sliced and diced the clauses to justify what they were trying to do. One thumbed his nose at the exercise altogether, saying it’s up to the courts, not Congress, to determine what is constitutional.”
Most striking of all is how little the statements mattered in the debates on the bills. They were mentioned just a handful of times on the floor, and didn’t foster the constitutional conversation that Republican lawmakers said they wanted to spark.
One unfortunate, if predictable, outcome of this regulation was overuse of the Commerce clause of the Constitution, a much-abused catch-all for legislative powers not relegated to the individual states. This kind of smart-aleck short-cutting makes many congressmen and women appear to be sleazy Eddie Haskell types, cheating on their homework and handing in the minimum requirement to escape a failing grade.
The Washington Times review found that one piece of legislation cited only the Preamble to the Constitution rather than the document itself, and five others cited clauses that don’t even exist. As the process ground on through the year, many representatives reverted to glib, single-sentence justifications reminiscent of a parent telling a child “Because I said so.” There is no conceivable way our country can thrive and grow stronger from such substandard legislation.
For our elected lawmakers to display such willful ignorance and indifference towards our founding missive is disgraceful. More ominously, it’s dangerous. If the language that identifies our inalienable rights and the limits of government power are ignored by those who have sworn to uphold them, what assurances do we have against inequitable treatment and ultimately, tyranny itself? For the record, tyranny has many faces, and is always in need of forcible removal. There are no exceptions.
Power creep is always a problem with government, and the Republicans deserve props for their attempt at holding the line. The American people don’t realize that the only firewall protecting them from abusive overreach of federal authority for the last several years is the much-maligned House Republicans. Given the President’s stated agenda in the coming weeks, this last bulwark needs our support.
Whenever we undertake something as solemn as an oath, the very least required of us is to have intimate knowledge of that to which we are gravely swearing our fealty. Swearing an oath to something to which we are uncommitted is the height of hypocrisy.