On Wednesday, the 112th Congress will convene with the Republicans running the House for the first time since the dawn of the Obama era. According to many commentators, Speaker-to-Be John Boehner and his crew of zealots have some very scary ideas. Chief among them: They want to make some obscure, inscrutable tract from an ancient civilization the centerpiece of their legislative philosophy. Indeed, in a move generating consternation and exasperation at MSNBC and other bastions of right-thinking, these cultists will read their perversely sacred text at the opening of the legislative session, breaking with more than 200 years of precedent.
It gets even worse. If the ideologues have their way, they will include a reference to their sacred treatise in every piece of legislation, imposing their arcane ideas on the nation.
They call their sacred text: “the U.S. Constitution.” It’s a funny thing. You’d think that the Constitution — the document every elected official, significant government appointee, soldier and naturalized citizen swears to uphold — would be like hot dogs or apple pie in our political system. Who’s against the Constitution? Yet at times, no subject seems to stew the bowels of liberals more than the idea that we should — or even can — be loyal to it.
Last week, Ezra Klein, a famously liberal Washington Post blogger, explained to MSNBC host Norah O’Donnell that the “gimmick” of reading the Constitution on the floor was ultimately silly because the Constitution was written “more than 100 years ago” and is, therefore, too confusing for everyone to understand. By that standard, Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare and the Bible are long past their expiration dates and, by implication, impossible to follow accurately. One might also point out that the recently minted phonebook-thick Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) is a good deal harder to decipher than the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, the GOP’s promise to require that every legislation contain a clause citing the constitutional authority for it has sparked a riot of incredulity. A writer for U.S. News & World Report says the idea is “just plain wacky.” Last September, Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell declared that “the litmus test by which I cast my vote for every piece of legislation” will be “whether or not it is constitutional.” Dahlia Lithwick, Slate magazine’s legal editor, responded, “How weird is that, I thought. Isn’t it a court’s job to determine whether or not something is, in fact, constitutional? And isn’t that sort of provided for in, well, the Constitution?”
Leave aside the fact that it is not solely the job of the courts to determine what is constitutional. Forget that no such thing is provided for in the Constitution. You do have to wonder why senators and representatives bother swearing to “support and defend” the Constitution if that’s not part of their job description. Surely, it would strike most citizens as bizarre to suggest that legislators shouldn’t worry about whether their proposed legislation is constitutional. If on a field trip the Supreme Court goes off a cliff in a horrible bus accident, does that mean the Constitution goes with it?