Members of the House, for the first time anyone can remember, read the Constitution aloud on the House floor to commemorate the beginning of a new Congress, one day after the 435 members were sworn in.
But they didn't read the whole Constitution, exactly: They read the document as amended. That left out, among other things, the three-fifths clause, which deemed slaves less than full people for population-counting purposes and was only eliminated by the Thirteenth Amendment and the abolition of slavery.
Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., objected this morning on the House floor, and later today repeated his complaints in a written statement released by his office:
... Our expectation was that the new Republican majority would read the Constitution as written and its subsequent amendments. There is a broad body of law and interpretation that has developed from 1787 until the adoption of the last Amendment in 1992 that has turned our Constitution into a living document, paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of millions of Americans from the Revolutionary War, through the Civil War to even our current conflicts.
"The new Republican majority and their redacted Constitutional reading gives little deference to the long history of improving the Constitution and only seeks an interpretation of our Constitution based on the now, not the historic, broad body of law and struggle that it has taken to get there. It leaves out the need to continue to refine the Constitution so that we have a more perfect union. ...
Jackson's complaint speaks to a broad conflict in how the Constitution is treated -- one that's becoming more relevant in today's politics.
At present, the Republican Party is being steered by revivalists of a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Tea partiers have called for a return to a faithful adherence to the document, as they criticize things like the TARP bailout and the individual mandate, complaining of an overreach of federal powers. We'd be better off adhering to the letter of the Constitution, without interpreting it to broaden the reach of the federal government, they say, siding with conservative legal thinkers like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
More liberal constitutional interpreters, meanwhile, see the document as a living thing, constantly updated, reinterpreted, and evolving with the times -- much as Rabbis reinterpret the Bible and the Talmud. They also see the Constitution as a document that can and should be changed over time. Democrats, generally, fall into this category.
In the debate over health care, conservatives have argued that the individual mandate assumes excessive federal authority not supported by the Commerce Clause, which lets the federal government regulate commerce. The politically charged debate over whether the Constitution permits such a mandate is now being played out in federal courts.
Everywhere one turns, it seems, the Tea Party bases its objections on the notion that President Obama has done something unconstitutional, straying from either the strict letter or the obvious intent of the country's Founding Fathers, whom the movement holds sacrosanct.
Jackson's point seems to be this: By only reading part of the Constitution, House Republicans glossed over its imperfections, and the whole notion that it ever needs or needed to be changed. It echoes a point made by Slate's Dahlia Lithwick on how the Tea Party's constitutional fetishism can get it in trouble.
In short, this morning's performance of the Constitution brought up a fundamental ideological conflict in American politics, just by posing the question of how to proceed, logistically, with the reading. Such is the power of the document.
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