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The House GOP Weaponizes the Constitution

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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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Steven M Daniels

It's a sad day in America when our country is held hostage by our own legislative law makers with their "Let's make a Deal" approach on capital Hill. While millions of Americans have already lost their home, their jobs and their pensions to fraud, greed and scams, anyone could see that our political system is failing this country and the American people. While the Republicans keep crying and pushing for smaller government, matters will only get worst because smaller government means less regulation over our financial, medical and auto industries leaving Wall Street and the Banking industry a license to continue stealing from the American people. How is it that this type of fraud and scams legal in the United States of America. It is a moral obligation as well as a legal obligation of our law makers to wright the necessary legislation into law so that this type of fraud never happen again.
A 95% rate of fraud sounds preposterous, but the number was repeated by a paralegal familiar with the case, Lisa Beasley, as well as Michael Redman, who was prompted to create a website called after enduring personal experiences with the matter. There’s a reason for them to say so—they take and report on a lot of foreclosure fraud cases—but there’s also a reason they devote so much of their time to these cases, just like there’s a reason that multiple states are suing major banks for the same type of fraud.

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January 08 2011 at 3:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This writer is sick. Reading the "Owners Manual" of our Country in the place where the peoples wishes are carried out is not a stunt! It's long overdue! I have a copy you? Let me guess.. you never read the owners manual in your glove compartment but complain when your car breaks down from lack of maintenance

January 06 2011 at 9:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

David: I'm going to ignore the uncivil attacks in this column on conservatives and tea partiers; instead, let me query you on that phrase, "general welfare." Does that not indicate that each law must affect all citizens equally, rather than one portion "getting" at the expense of another? So, how do you justify 30 million people without insurance (and many without citizenship) getting health insurance coverage at the expense of the 85% who already pay their own way? How about those 5% of the wealthiest taxpayers getting a higher rate because they are successful? Neither example sounds like the "general welfare" to me. How about big banks and auto manufacturers getting financing from the gob'mint, but small business not so much... hmmmm?

January 04 2011 at 9:54 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to trb2244's comment

trb2244....Thank you for saying what I tried to post about the un-civility and the talking down to people who disagree with you. But i have been black-listed and you sir said it more eloquently than I. And your point about the 'general welfare" in the preamble is spot on.

January 05 2011 at 12:44 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

..."They (Republican candidates) focused almost entirely on the dang guv'mint, insisting that restraining the government would somehow lead to economic growth".
Is that how the left views us on the right ~ saying things like "dang guv'mint"?
Boy, you elitists really think you're something don't you? Your concept of our government is "big brother" knows what best and needs to baby sit us and take care of us. Your view of the constitution is skewed by your own agenda and that's why it is a good idea to read it aloud, slowly and publicly so open minds can again enjoy the wonder of this marvelous living document...

January 04 2011 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

The so called tea party needs to demonstrate that they are capable of generating, positive, problem solving solutions to our nation problems rather than taking up valuable congressional time by laboriously reading the Constitution. This archaic practice is an affront to all Americans who want positive, progressive and helpful actions. If this is the best that the tea party represents then the whole country is in store for gridlock and narrow NO voting and obstructionism for the next term of Congress.

Add, do not subtract from, to getting problems solved and behind us in this country. Quit playing at government and start governing! You asked for the opportunity, now show by responsible actions that you are capable of governing.

January 04 2011 at 1:23 PM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John's comment
dc walker

.............the tea party picked up speed because the middle class tax payers saw how much debt we had, we not only owe China but 35 other nations.

January 04 2011 at 7:54 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

to avoid bankruptcy, one must first get control of your budget. every sector including defence and social security must be cut. there is at least 10% waste and fraud in every dept, from bogus defence contracts, education bureacracy, and medicaid fraud. but, the cuts must go deeper. everybody must be prepared to sacrafice, just as our grandparents did in WWII. i accept the fact that i, a 40 yo will never receive any social security, because it will be insolvent. we must all accept, that for a while, we may not have the best security money can buy, because we have no money. every kid may not have a computer at school, no likes education cuts, but real cuts(not just teacher salaries) are needed. no program should be spared, we all lived beyond our means and sucked off the govt tit and now its time to pay the piper, no more passing it on to our grandkids. we also need true tax reform where every citizen pays some taxes(less than 50% of americans actually pay taxes). do away with all deductions and give us a lower rate across the board, a simpler tax code. remove all corporate tax and encourage growth(business doesnt actually pay tax, it passes it along to the consumer). higher taxes on tobacco, booze, music downloads, iphones, ipads, blackberries, twitter, facebook accounts, movies, blogging, and any other nonessential(wasteful) activity, until the debt is paid off, along with the multitrillion dollar bailout for states and municipalities that on the way.

January 04 2011 at 12:39 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Another thought is change the corporate tax code lowering the rate to 17& (Canada just lowered theirs to 16%. foriegn income is not U.S. taxed, that's no good. Add apportionment to the tax code. States currently do this. They take three factors into their formula. Sales, assets, and salaries. These figures are turned into a percentage of the total sales, assets and salaries, then applying that percentage to 100% of the corporate income, which is then taxed as U.S. income.

January 04 2011 at 12:21 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Thanks cutie, the problem with duties is whatever we do, other countries will do the same to our goods exported. Here is what I am in favor of:
1. Balanced budget amendment to the constitution, give congress four years to get there.
2. Amend the Constitution making Congressional terms four years vice two, term limit for both house 12 years.
3. Change the tax code to that recommended by the Deficit Commission. Three tax rates, no schedule A deductions, no credit or exemptions
4. Impose a National Sales Tax of 3 or 4%, where the proceeds can only be applied to the principle of the national debt. Add a provision where the tax can only be imposed when the budget is balanced. Define balanced as expenditures can not exceed tax revenue.
5. Eliminate the Department of Eduction. If funds are to be provided for education, let them be grants.
6. Require pension plans be actuarially financed
7. Replace Obama care with a new Health care plan, allowing child coverage to 26, non-cancellable coverage, no caps, plans over state lines, tort reform, let the states be in charge.

I could go on and on....

January 04 2011 at 12:05 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gpfs's comment
dc walker

.............lowered tariffs give American corporations the ability to leave and bring back their cheaper goods to the same market. During the Haitian earthquake aftermath they showed a So Korean company there that had survived. The reason there was a So Korean company there was that under the Caribbean Initiative there would be no duties on their products to the USA, if they had stayed in So. Korean they would have had high wages, freight costs etc. These trade deals have killed american jobs. A national sales tax punishes American corporations, let's punish those who left. If you want foreign goods than you should pay for the level playing field.

January 04 2011 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't think reading the Constitution is a stunt, nor do I think it weaponizes it. Hearing it read, will, hopefully, although doubtful for liberals, allow for a greater understanding of it, in particular the 10th amendment. "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Think about that for a minute.

January 04 2011 at 11:45 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply

America is going bankrupt. What I see on these posts is one side bashing the other. I would be more interested in what your solutions are. The budget is a disaster, what would you cut. You have about a trillion dollars to get rid of or pay for. How are you going to do it?

January 04 2011 at 11:44 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to gpfs's comment

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