Bench Memos

A Flub on Amendments Doesn’t Obscure the Achievement

I agree with my friend Matt Franck that today’s reading of the Constitution on the House floor was an error. There is really no such thing as an “amended version” of the Constitution. No amendments have removed any words from the original text. When the initial amendments were being debated, the first Congress considered whether they should be textual changes or amendments added at the end of the document. They chose the latter to protect the original text from the editor’s pen.

As an act of public education, the new congressional leadership, while acknowledging that no text has actually been removed by any amendment, chose to read the Constitution without the text that had been subject to those amendments. Matt Franck and I would have done it differently, to be sure. But let’s not miss the larger significance of what happened. For the first time in our history a new Congress opened its session with a public reading of the document that delegates to that body its powers and defines the parameters of its operations.

This act sets the tone and defines the purpose of this new Congress. The real test comes with the debates over the rule requiring that each piece of legislation cite its constitutional authority. Look for a good fight to be launched by the citation for the legislation to repeal Obamacare, which will assert Congress’ independent responsibility to uphold and interpret by its actions the Constitution. It will not only challenge the court’s claim of exclusive power over the Constitution but also liberalism’s view of a limitless regulatory state.

It is going to take Congress a bit to regain their atrophied constitutional muscles, and relearn how to think and act accordingly. There will be many mistakes along the way. But the document is being debated in Congress, it is being taken seriously by serious people, and the progressives are once again making fools of themselves. Reading the Constitution, and looking to that document for authority and guidance, is an important step in the direction of recovering limited government. It lays the premise for argument to come.

A technical error today, yes, but it was still a big score for the home team.

Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Matthew Spalding is the associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Chair in Constitutional Studies.


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