Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 26, 2010

READING IT IS ONE THING, HONORING IT IS ANOTHER.... I can appreciate political theatrics as much as the next guy, but this stunt, as reported by the conservative Washington Times, seems rather pointless.

The Constitution frequently gets lip service in Congress, but House Republicans next year will make sure it gets a lot more than that -- the new rules the incoming majority party proposed this week call for a full reading of the country's founding document on the floor of the House on Jan. 6.

The goal, backers said, is to underscore the limited-government rules the Founders imposed on Congress -- and to try to bring some of those principles back into everyday legislating.

The reading proposal was pushed by far-right Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who apparently got the idea from even-further-right state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R-Va.).

I don't doubt that several members who participate in the exercise will feel better about themselves, but there's no real point to this. Jonathan Bernstein, with an item dripping in sarcasm, noted the other day:

[R]eading the Constitution out loud will guarantee that no new legislation will violate our basic charter. After all, it's well known that the Constitution is clear and unambiguous at all points, and that previous violations of it have been caused by a combination of ignorance and indifference. Once it's read on the House floor, that problem will be solved.

Look, this stuff is proven to work. Younger readers may not realize it, but in the Carter and Reagan years the House was just full of treasonous subversives -- a problem entirely solved by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to open all House sessions since fall 1988.

That's entirely right, but I'd go a little further. The point of the reading, I suspect, is to reinforce a larger argument that right-wing Republicans would like the public to believe: they are the Constitution's true champions. They want to read it out loud as a demonstration of the GOP's love of the document, while sticking it to those rascally liberals and their unconstitutional agenda.

But there's a problem with this: it's crazy. We're talking about a House Republican caucus with leaders who support allowing states to overturn federal laws they don't like.

In recent years, congressional Republicans haven't just endorsed bizarre legal concepts; they've advocated constitutional concepts that were discredited generations ago.

Worse, they have ambitious plans to shuffle the constitutional deck more to their liking. During the campaign, we heard from a variety of bizarre candidates, many of whom won, who talked about scrapping the 17th Amendment, repealing the 16th Amendment, getting rid of at least one part of the 14th Amendment, "restoring" the "original" 13th Amendment, and proposing dozens of new amendments.

Similarly, these same officials intend to radically transform the country as we currently know it, identifying bedrocks of society, and declaring them not just wrong, but literally unconstitutional. Two weeks ago, one of these so-called "Constitutional conservatives" publicly called for "censoring" major media outlets he doesn't like.

For these guys to somehow claim they've cornered the market on constitutional fealty is ridiculous, and arguably, backwards.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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Conservatives own the Constitution like they own Jesus: as a brand, a symbol of their belief.
They don't really give a damn what either one of them SAYS!

Posted by: MR Bill on December 26, 2010 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

RE: Constitutional Fundamentalism


This should come as no surprise given the line between political right and religious right has blurred out of existence.

Those same people who believe the Bible is to be taken literally, word-for-word (their "correct" interpretation, of course), are bound to take the same approach to the Constitution.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Posted by: Bob on December 26, 2010 at 8:26 AM | PERMALINK

Reading it is one thing, but listening to it being read is another. Maybe congressmen and women should be given a test after the reading. Those who fail, go home.

Better yet, why don't we just elect better congressmen and women. The 2012 cycle begins now.

What can we do to energize the Democratic party? How about new state chairs? Some people who really care about something other than getting good tickets at the convention parties. Sorry, but I fear for our country.

Posted by: Ron Byers on December 26, 2010 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Many of these same GuanoNutz also swear fealty to the Ten Commandments, yet when pressed, are unable to actually name them.

(Stephen Colbert has priceless video!)

Posted by: DAY on December 26, 2010 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

To quote that famous philosopher Calvin (no, not that one -- the one in "Calvin and Hobbes"): "Reading's a breeze as long as you don't sweat comprehension."

Posted by: charles on December 26, 2010 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

It will be interesting when they get to this line from the original:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Posted by: Newton Whale on December 26, 2010 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

How long will it take to read these 27 little sords, the only one these idiots think matter:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Posted by: Realist on December 26, 2010 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

The time has come to consider an enlargement of the House of Representatives. The kast time it was done was in 1912 when the population was around 90 million. We should realize that much of the work they do can be performed at home through the use of computers and the WEB. They do not all have to be in Washington where they can be corrupted by K-Street lobbyiest. Those left home may act as a check on those leaders who go to the capital, and enlargement of three times would make buying represenatives more differcult.

Posted by: iyoumeweus on December 26, 2010 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Charles has it well imaged with , "Reading's a breeze as long as you don't sweat comprehension."

As for our dear Ayn Rand contingents idears of "comprehension" , I leave it to an architect to winnow into an idea , wrapped in a warning , as an insider speaking of comprehension .
Frank Lloyd Wright -
"I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters."

Posted by: FRP on December 26, 2010 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

Wanting to add/change amendments doesn't diminish fealty to the Constitution. It was the Founders who included the ability to amend in the original document. I am glad to see such support for Constitutional principles. I assume all those Representatives are thus members of the ACLU.

Posted by: Mxyzptlk on December 26, 2010 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Too bad we lost Robert Byrd. He would have wiped the floor with Cuccinelli and his theocratic buddies' bullshit regarding the Constitution.

Posted by: Steve on December 26, 2010 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

For the sake of the Tea Party Caucus, I hope they follow the reading with a screening of Schoolhouse Rock's "How a Bill Becomes Law."

Posted by: hells littlest angel on December 26, 2010 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

Meh. One can consistently believe both that Congress ought to act w/in its constitutional limits* and that the constitution ought to be changed. There's nothing hypocritical about the GOP's position here.

* Substantively, the GOP is wrong, of course, on the vast majority of (D) laws. They are constitutional, or at least premised on reasonable constitutional theories. So compelling the congress to recite those theories in every bill, or reading the constitution aloud, will make exactly zero different. On top of that, most laws already contain a clause noting the constitutional basis of the law.

Posted by: jpe on December 26, 2010 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

can't wait until they get to Article 6:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

So treaties, which may incorporate "foreign law" are superior to the Constitution, because the Constitution says so!!! How can we follow a Constitution that sacrifices our "National Soveringnty?"

Get the popcorn and watch for the exploding heads.

Posted by: martin on December 26, 2010 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

These people are the equivalent of the Bible thumpers who maintain that the Bible is literally true and the only guidance we need--the ones who like to highlight anything anti-gay and ignore that parts where they are told to pay their taxes and tend the sick and the needy, you know all that liberal socialist stuff that Jesus was always promoting.

Posted by: Tired Liberal on December 26, 2010 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

The required reading of the Constitution is part of the fetishizing of the document. I suspect that for most of these people, the only real "studying" of the Constitution they have done is one of those one week courses sponsored by right wing organizations; you know that these programs only present one point of view.

To me, this anti-intellectual approach to what has been over 200 years of complex jurisprudence was epitomized by Sharon Angle's response when asked during her campaign if she would have voted for Sotomayor or Kagan for the Supreme Court. No, she replied; she didn't think that either of them "understood" the Constitution. The arrogance, derived from ignorance, in thinking that Sotomayor--who dealt with Constitutional issues every day as a Federal district court and court of appeals judge--and Kagan--who studied, taught and litigated the Constitution for all of her professional career--don't "understand" the Constitution!

Angle and much of the new wave constituting the right wing appear to view the Constitution much as fundamental Christians view the Bible--there is but one interpretation of the text and it is theirs. They seem totally uninterested in learning about other interpretations and points of view.

We're dealing with religious faith, rather than rational thought. The reading of the Constitution is ritualistic behavior part of a process to turn the document into a "sacred text".

Posted by: DRF on December 26, 2010 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

Okay. Then have someone follow up by reciting the Gettysburg Address--interrupted, no doubt, by Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" halfway through.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on December 26, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

Until they read the entire King James Bible on the floor of the House, I won't believe they're serious.

Posted by: Conservatroll on December 26, 2010 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

No, Mr. Benen, they themselves are ridiculous and backwards!

Too bad not many of our fellow Americans are paying attention enough to see this assault on governance! These new Congress critters are thugs who got license to be at the civic table of decision-making because of Reagan's War on Government, started now two generations ago! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 26, 2010 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

We're dealing with religious faith, rather than rational thought. The reading of the Constitution is ritualistic behavior part of a process to turn the document into a "sacred text".

And this is a really good illustration of "the letter" and not the "spirit" of both the Bible and Constitution.
They seek to use the sacred texts as chains, where only their interpretation is the 'American' one.

'The letter of the law, it killeth.."

Posted by: MR Bill on December 26, 2010 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

Reading an article over the holiday on the subject of the spirit of Christmas, the repubs, scrooge etc, I got the message that with all of the false bible thumping coming from the right - Christmas spirit & goodwill belongs to the left, I never hear of republicans concern about the poor, the sick or the unemployed, or the hungry, my leftist friends all want to give to the poor and help serve meals to the homeless, give toys to the children and healthcare for all. Scrooge must certainly have been a republican with one difference - Scrooge changed his tune in the end!

Posted by: js on December 26, 2010 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Are they going to have read only the (original) Constitution or also the amendments? It's not clear from that Washington Times article (not that one necessarily would want to believe anything one read from that source).

Posted by: wab on December 26, 2010 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

These people are the equivalent of the Bible thumpers who maintain that the Bible is literally true and the only guidance we need


These people are the Bible thumpers who maintain that the Bible is literally true and the only guidance we need

Posted by: TCinLA on December 26, 2010 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

Bob is right.

This is not constitutionalism. This is Christian and Conservative Fundamentalism metastacizing in order to get the Constitution on its side just as they think they have God and the Bible on their side as well.

What the radical right hopes to repeal is not so much the entirety of the Obama agenda, or even those Amendments that Steve lists here. What the radical right wants to repeal -- with their obsession over a make-believe and romanticized version of the Constitution -- is politics itself. Plant the "Truths" of the radical right firmly in the Constitution and you take discussion, dissent, deliberation, compromise and ultimately politics itself off the table and turn the dynamism and indeterminateness of democracy into obedience and conformity to right wing dogma, in the name of Constitutionalism.

And when they actually do get around to reading the Constitution, what do you want to bet they skip right over that "We the People" stuff about "forming a more perfect Union" in order to "ensure domestic tranquillity" and "promote the general welfare?"

My guess is NOT! -- not from a party that was so offended by the President quoting an "informal" motto which speaks of the many becoming one -- E Pluribus Unum -- that they wrote a letter to the White House demanding a retraction.

Posted by: Ted Frier on December 26, 2010 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

I suppose it is possible that a few of the officials will listen attentively as the Constitution is read. We can hope that little dim lightbulbs flicker on over their heads, and one or two might even think "huh? whazzit say?" before squashing the thought.

Didactic response to DRF's comment that "The reading of the Constitution is ritualistic behavior part of a process to turn the document into a "sacred text"

Historian Mark Noll has written some fascinating books related to this. The Bible has no prohibition against slavery; it does prohibit homosexuality. The view that the slavery is immoral and homosexuality is a-okay both require readings based on the principles underlying the specific words of the biblical text. The same struggle is happening now between people wedded to a superficial reading of the Constitution (ie the reading that supports what conservatives want to believe) and readings that are based on the principles of the FF.

I'm going to echo Ron Byers above. "Better yet, why don't we just elect better congressmen and women."
I think that I have made the mistake over the past ten years of assuming that someone, somewhere, was working on this goal. Clearly, given how many Republican bozos have been elected recently, it is clear that we-liberals-have not been giving this problem as much attention as it deserves. I've been wanting advice from Howard Dean recently.

Posted by: PTate in MN on December 26, 2010 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Reading the Constitution will "guarantee" that new laws won't violate the letter/intent/whatever of the document. How?

Posted by: tec619 on December 26, 2010 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

The reading proposal was pushed by far-right Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)[...] -- Steve Benen

Sigh. My own non-representative. Whose most endearing feature had always been his willingness to stay out of the limelight and to keep his trap shut. Obviously, that's going to change now. And the SOB is so entrenched, it's impossible to dislodge him; we've been trying, every two years.

Is anyone else intrigued by the date of the proposed reading? January 6 is Epiphany (I may be an atheist, but I grew up in an all-Catholic Poland). I wonder if that doesn't answer Steve's question as to how the reading is likely to influence the Congress towards greater observance of the Constitutional dicta: upon its reading, everyone will be seized with a personal Epiphany and, from there on, will adhere to the letter (if not the spirit) of the document.

Posted by: exlibra on December 26, 2010 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

"I suppose it is possible that a few of the officials will listen attentively as the Constitution is read. "

My guess is that the Republican caucus will be instructed to appear that they are doing just that. They'll be hoping that the Democrats will have gone for coffee or be checking their blackberries or chatting amongst themselves while this silly stunt goes on. Then Fox News can spend the next month sputtering with rage about how the Dems have so little respect for the Constitution.

Posted by: Dunstan on December 26, 2010 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Since Dems will be in the minority in the House, they may want to take this idea and run with it when they need to slow things down. For example, they may want to read whole Supreme Court decisions, written by the finest legal minds, during committee meetings.

Another thing the Dems might want to think about is amending their party name to the Constitutional Democratic Party.

Posted by: Seould on December 26, 2010 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

All the same, it will be great fun to hear some Republican have to say out loud that religious tests for public office are forbidden.

Posted by: T-Rex on December 26, 2010 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

Your 2 arguments cancel themselves. If those insane idiots force the reading of the US constitution, many of them will hear it. I promise you that most are familiar with the 2nd and 10th amendments and no more.

I don't interact with wingnuts, but I frequently find myself quoting the Constitution when participating in web debates on its meaning. People really really don't know the text (I don't trust myself to know it and restrict myself to cutting and pasting).

Just exactly because the people who call themselves constitutional conservatives are clueless about the actual text of the actual document, the reading might slow them down a bit and reduce the damage that they do.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on December 26, 2010 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

And in true GOP form, while it is being read, no Republicans will be in the House chamber, and if there are any, they will be tweeting on their Blackberrys.

Posted by: June on December 27, 2010 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

"identifying bedrocks of society, and declaring them not just wrong, but literally unconstitutional."

Hmm, I didn't realize Western Civilization was propped up by the income tax and the popular election of U.S. Senators.

The country would not be radically be transformed, it's the government which would be transformed. The destructive leviathan you criticize when there's a Republican president would be transformed if could not collect tax money from the public. It could not use drone aircraft to bomb innocent Pakistanis as you Obama supporters allow it to do. If that is radical in your eyes, well, all one can say is I'm sorry to take your F-14s away from you.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on December 27, 2010 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK



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