The New House Majority and the Constitution: Through a Glass Darkly or Face to Face?

In his hilarious autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, humorist James Thurber recounted his four-year struggle to pass Biology at Ohio State.

Thurber was legally blind; but in those days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the university made no adjustments to its curriculum for his condition. Biology was required; and to pass Biology, Thurber had to peer through the microscope and produce a sketch of living cells.

The problem was, he couldn't. For three straight years he saw only blankness. Then one day during his senior year, he suddenly began to sketch, producing "a variegated constellation of fleck, specks, and dots." When he proudly turned in his work, the professor lost his composure. "That's your eye!" he screamed. "You've fixed the lens so it reflects! You've drawn your eye!"

The Thurber story leapt to mind when I read recently that the new Tea Party-inspired members of Congress are arriving in the Capitol with pocket copies of a document they apparently believe no one else has ever heard of. Their newly adopted House rules require that every bill be introduced with a statement of its "specific Constitutional Authority."

The new House majority will underline its "the Constitution is back, and it's badass" approach by requiring (for apparently only the third time in history) that the entire document be read this Thursday in the chamber.

That's actually a good idea, and it would be especially nice if it could be read aloud by one of America's great actors--Sam Waterston, say, or Meryl Streep, or Denzel Washington. There is a kind of quiet music to the Constitution, not only in the exuberance of the Preamble but in the epic list of Congressional powers in Article I § 8, the surfer-dude vagueness of Article II, and the tight-lipped sobriety of the Bill of Rights. There certainly would be no imaginable harm in our lawmakers listening to the Constitution; when it comes to the document, I draw my motto from Dean Wormer of Animal House: Knowledge is good.

... House members don't gather to listen to non-politicians, or to each other; or, in fact, to listen at all. They come to the chamber to fulfill their primary duty, getting on television.

But we all know that House members don't gather to listen to non-politicians, or to each other; or, in fact, to listen at all. They come to the chamber to fulfill their primary duty, getting on television. So they won't be listening to a clear, coherent reading of the Constitution; instead, they are parceling it out among themselves clause by clause.

No one is likely to listen to the Constitution as a whole during this solemn pageant; and more's the pity. The "specific authority" rule is apt to spark some debates later in the session, as members challenge other members' constitutional interpretations. That in the abstract is all to the good (and actually a good deal less of a change from current practice than the new majority pretends). But it helps in such a debate if the participants actually have read the Constitution--read it as a whole, and with an open mind. So far the right wing of the new majority seems to have read the Constitution much the way Thurber read his microscope; it has produced a drawing that by a bizarre coincidence looks much like its own policy agenda.

Of course, this reading will not be the only opportunity for constitutional study on the part of the new members. We can all be heartened by the news that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is going to hold a Constitution School for them. Rep. Bachmann's qualifications as a constitutionalist are suggested by the statement she issued last September for Constitution Day, which says (not making this up): "It was in the Constitution that our founding fathers penned the infamous words, 'We the People'." Even I am not going to pretend to believe that Rep. Bachmann regards the Preamble as containing words "of ill fame or repute; famed or notorious for badness of any kind; notoriously evil, wicked, or vile; held in infamy or public disgrace." I'm quite sure that she reveres the Constitution as much as I do; but her statement does suggest that she may have a slight problem understanding the meaning of ordinary words. Alas, understanding is essential to reading the Constitution. As for teaching it, we are told by our books of wisdom that if the blind lead the blind, the result may be suboptimal.

I've spent the past two years reading the Constitution carefully, with no legislative duties to distract me, and what I see in the Constitution is not something that should give comfort to small-government, state's rights, hard-money, no-internal-improvement conservatives.

Conservative Republicans tend to go on and on about how the Constitution puts shackles on Congress. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently explained that "although the Constitution does give some defined powers to the federal government, it is overwhelmingly a document of limits, and those limits must be respected."

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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