Today, one of the first acts of the new Republican majority [was to] read the entire U.S. Constitution from the floor of the House of Representatives.
“When conservatives like [Robert] Bork treat rights as islands surrounded by a sea of government powers, they precisely reverse the view of the Founders as enshrined in the Constitution, wherein government powers are limited and specified and rendered as islands surrounded by a sea of individual rights.”
– Stephen Macedo
The New Right v. the Constitution
While the GOP explains they are reading the document because they feel that Congress has strayed from the country’s founding principles, a reading of the entire Constitution is “something that has never been done in the chamber’s 221 year history.” The reading will lead off Thursday’s floor schedule, and will be run by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who said the reading “shows that the new majority in the House truly is dedicated to our Constitution and the principles for which it stands.” While some have lampooned the plan as mere political theater — a New York Times editorial called it “a presumptuous and self-righteous act” — Vanity Fair estimated the reading will cost $1.1 million — it nonetheless offers an opportunity for freshmen and senior Republicans alike to actually study the text of the founding document they claim to hold so dear. They might not like what they hear. In their effort to co-opt the radical tea party movement, Republicans have attempted to wrap themselves in the document and use the Constitution like a bludgeon against progressives. In reality, conservatives consistently ignore, distort, and pervert the Constitution in order to force it to fit their political goals and ideology. As the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Ian Millhiser wrote, “the GOP’s agenda is nothing less than a direct assault on America’s founding document.”
‘UNCONSTITUTIONAL’ PARTS OF THE CONSTITUTION: In an op-ed in the right-wing American Spectator, Fox News’ senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano asked a remarkable question for someone who describes himself as a fierce “constitutional conservative”: “Is any part of the Constitution unconstitutional ?” “Yes,” Napolitano concluded. Napolitano’s absurd claim reflects a startlingly widespread conviction among conservatives. While claiming to defend the Constitution, conservatives are really only interested defending the parts they agree with, and are equally committed to dismantling the parts they do not. For example, a Progress Report analysis found that at least 130 GOP members of the 111th Congress — including their Senate leader, former presidential candidate, and numerous House leaders — want to “review” or dismantle the 14th Amendment and the right to birthright citizenship it guarantees. The text of the amendment could not be more clear: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The conservative plot to end birthright citizenship eerily reflects the vision of citizenship articulated by the Supreme Court’s infamous pro-slavery decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford . It has no place in the 21st century. Meanwhile, a number of prominent tea party politicians, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), have called for repealing the 17th Amendment, which allows state citizens to directly elect their senators. Indeed, as the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder noted in May, “It’s become a part of the Tea Party orthodoxy, now.” Why would the so-called constitutionalists of the tea party seek to maim the Constitution to make America much less democratic? “Supporters of the plan say that ending the public vote for Senators would give the states more power to protect their own interests in Washington (and of course, give all of us “more liberty” in the process.)” On top of that, conservatives seek to further dismantle the Constitution by undoing the 16th Amendment, which enables the income tax. Paying taxes is never popular, but it would be impossible to function as a nation if America lacked the power to raise the money it needs to “provide for the common Defense,” among other things that the Constitution charges the government with providing.
CONSERVATIVE DISTORTIONS: While seeking to remove whole parts of a document they call “sacred,” conservatives also work to subvert the meaning of other parts. The Constitution gives Congress broad authority to “provide for yet a growing movement of right-wing “tenthers” want to squelch this and other authorities to render the federal government almost powerless. This is particularly evident in the slew of lawsuits against President Obama’s health care reform law, and the judgment of conservative-activist-turned-federal-judge Henry Hudson striking down the law’s individual insurance mandate. The Constitution clearly grants Congress the authority to enact the law through the “Commerce Clause,” which allows Congress to regulate the national economy, and the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” which grants Congress the power “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” this power to regulate the economy. Even George Washington University Law Professor Orin Kerr, who was a recent constitutional adviser to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), wrote that Hudson committed a “fairly obvious and quite significant error” by completely ignoring the “Necessary and Proper Clause” in his decision. Kerr’s colleague, Jonathan Adler, a leading opponent of environmental regulation, agrees that Hudson’s opinion “cannot be right.” Even House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) own lawyer Carrie Severino wrote in the conservative National Review that Hudson’s opinion renders that entire provision of the Constitution “meaningless.”
Meanwhile, as Millhiser noted yesterday, today’s conservative movement’s distorted interpretation of the Constitution would send the country back a century, allowing illegal activities like child labor, whites only-lunch counters, and gender discrimination. And a growing number of conservative “tenthers” believe Social Security, Medicare, and the minimum wage are unconstitutional (Goodlatte himself said this week that he didn’t know if the minimum wage is constitutional).
THE PROGRESSIVE VISION: The Constitution is a progressive document, and has always been and remains central to progressive thought. The progressive view of the Constitution simply calls for embracing the whole Constitution — including the Bill of the Rights and the amendments ratified by “We the people” over the past 220 years — not just the fragments that happen to align with conservative ideology. Progressives recognize that the Constitution is the most enduring government charter in world history precisely because it was designed to be improved and adapted to the times, so these changes cannot be ignored in an attempt to return to some mythical earlier era to which conservatives constantly refer. Tea party conservatives often accuse progressives of undermining the text or abandoning its principles, when in fact it is progressives who must repeatedly defend the document and its emphasis on social justice, expanded franchise, and equality for all from conservative attacks. While conservatives accuse progressives of “judicial activism,” it is conservatives who increasingly legislate from the bench, such as in overturning decades of campaign finance law in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Progressives recognize that the Constitution sees “We the people” as the source of political power and legitimacy, and that it grants the federal government broad powers to better the nation, separates church and state, enshrines basic human and civil rights, promotes free and fair markets, and broadly protects the right to vote. Hopefully conservatives will see this as well when the document is read on the House floor.
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