On Thursday, Capitol Hill Republicans, a day after taking control of the House, intend to read the U.S. Constitution
on the floor of the House of Representatives. This is, of course, a stunt designed to position the GOPers as the party that really, really, really cares
about constitutional government. But the exercise is the showy equivalent of wearing a flag pin. It's no great feat to mouth the words written in 1787 in Philadelphia by a committee of the Federal Convention. That doesn't resolve any issues, for as any high school student with a decent history teacher knows, Americans have been arguing about what is and isn't constitutional governance since Marbury v. Madison
. Still, this stunt-reading comes at a convenient time, for there is indeed a foundational debate underway in the United States, and it does track back to this sacred secular text.
The next year or so in American politics will be dominated by a battle over the answer to the question, what's the real problem: the U.S. economy or the U.S. government? With the economy still in the dumps after the Bush-Cheney crash, conservatives have been arguing that the key issue is government spending and power. During the 2010 election, Republican candidates did not decry the Wall Street financiers who schemed the nation toward near-economic collapse. They denounced President Obama and the Democrats for having spent money (yes, a lot of it, but perhaps not enough) to boost the economy. They did not address any problems within the economic or financial systems of the nation. They focused almost entirely on the dang guv'mint, insisting that restraining the government would somehow lead to economic growth. (They also called for tax-cut bonuses for the wealthy without seeming to notice that such tax breaks would greatly exacerbate the deficits they claim to care about.)
Obama has presented a different perspective: Government action is necessary to revive the economy and to assist Americans hit hard by tough times. That is, an economic order that imploded in 2008 is the culprit, and government, to a limited extent, has to try to rejigger the playing field and prevent greater harm. Thus, the need for new Wall Street reforms, stimulus spending, bailouts for banks and auto companies, and extended unemployment benefits for the jobless. Without all this, Obama justifiably contends, the unemployment rate would be much higher and the economy would be in far worse shape. (The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office backs him up, noting that his stimulus package saved or created up to 3.5 million jobs.)
There's a basic split -- between those who fixate on the bad ol' government and those who say the government is the necessary countervailing force to the destructive excesses of the market. Obama won Round 1 (the 2008 election) and was slammed in Round 2 (the 2010 election). But the match isn't over; it will continue until the next election. And the anti-government forces, fueled by tea party energy, will keep trying to bring the Constitution into this scuffle -- on their side. Waving Gadsden flags and sporting tricorn hats -- for that's how much they care about the founding principles -- they maintain that Obama's view is anti-constitutional, for it entails deploying the government in ways not covered by that organizing document.
So let's call to the witness stand the preamble of the Constitution -- usually attributed to Gouverneur Morris. Morris was a onetime New York politician who years earlier had lost his reelection to Congress largely because he was an advocate of a strong, central government. Or, in the jargon of today's tea partiers, he believed in tyranny. (Morris of "We the People" fame was also an enthusiastic fan of aristocracy and a foe of slavery.) His preamble is a short statement:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Government is necessary, he and the other founders were explaining, for an assortment of tasks, including promoting the general welfare of the citizenry (which, interestingly, is listed as an obligation in addition to defending the nation). Advancing general welfare certainly is a broad assignment, and it can be read to cover many things, such as providing a strong social safety net for those Americans who are left out of the national prosperity or a robust set of rules to ensure the fair and efficient practice of commerce. And for over 200 years, Americans have been arguing over the role of government. The truth is, this is largely a judgment call.
Wrapping up the tea party's government-is-the-enemy message in the Constitution is anti-historical. But I don't expect tea party leaders and GOPers to be consistent. Tea party folks in recent days have bitterly complained
about the lame-duck senators (including a few Republicans) ratifying the new START treaty, repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policies, and passing a bill to cover the health care costs of 9/11 emergency responders. These are not the gripes of strict constitutionalists, but the familiar complaints of right-wingers who are adhering (as is their right) to their traditional ideological fancies: denounce multilateral agreements, cling to traditionalist cultural views, and decry spending on social programs.
As the House Republicans recite the noble words of Morris and his crew, the important point is this: The Constitution doesn't settle the critical debates of the moment. We as a nation are still wrestling with how to define the general welfare -- and what to do about it. Perhaps Morris and his co-authors would be pleased by this. But it's my hunch they wouldn't cotton to lawmakers exploiting their well-crafted document and turning it into hollow political ammo.
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