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Debating the Constitution

Yesterday, the amended version of the Constitution was read aloud on the House floor. Beginning with new House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Republicans and Democrats took turns reading short sections of the document. Republicans, as they’re wont to do, recited passages of the Constitution with great zeal. Democrats were a bit more reserved. Finally at long last, the Republic has been saved!

The display of fealty to the country’s founding document was mostly symbolic, however. Republicans are infatuated with religious veneration of the Constitution and in large part owe their majority in the House to the Tea Party. This is only the beginning of GOP-led constitutional gimmickry (the House adopted rules requiring every new bill introduced cite its constitutional authority). What’s most important is how Democrats respond in kind.

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post:

We badly need a full-scale debate over what the Constitution is, means and allows – and how Americans have argued about these questions since the beginning of the republic. This provision should be the springboard for a discussion all of us should join…An examination of the Constitution that views it as something other than the books of Genesis or Leviticus would be good for the country.

Greg Sargent picks up on Dionne’s point:

I don't particularly care one way or the other if House Republicans read the Constitution aloud, but if they are going to do that, I'd actually go E.J. one better here. A debate about the Constitution — and indeed a broader discussion about this country's founding — could provide a chance to undercut the notion that somehow contemporary conservatives and Tea Partyers are more in sync with the founding generation than all the rest of us can claim to be.

For reasons unknown, Democrats get queasy when engaging in Constitutional arguments. The right loves to trumpet their fidelity to Jefferson, Madison and Franklin while the left isn’t as comfortable in such space. Like it or not, however, the next two years will be filled with debates over what the Constitution is and allows government to do. The Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Car Act is the most obvious but only one example. A contemporary conservative reading of the Constitution would not take us back to the days when African Americans were considered chattel. But it could do away with the ability of the federal government to regulate Wall Street, set a minimum wage, prohibit gender discrimination, extend Pell Grants to low-income students, and ensure that Social Security is in place for future generations.

What was most misleading about Thursday is that Republicans treated the Constitution as something nothing less than sacrosanct. Thus, everything we need to know about how to govern modern society is contained in a document created hundreds of years ago. This trope couldn’t be farther from the truth.

More from Sargent on this specific conservative conceit:

But as the historian Joseph Ellis (hardly a liberal) has written, the chief achievement of the founding generation was to create a framework within which the argument over the proper limits on Federal power could continue to unfold, not to decide it permanently one way or the other. Indeed, as Ellis has also noted, the Constitution's ambiguities, most notably its failure to deal with slavery, and the founding's undemocratic imperfections, paved the way for latter-day robust expressions of Federal power to move the country closer to true democracy.

So let’s have a debate about the Constitution. It affords Democrats an opportunity to provide a constitutional rationale for the necessary and proper role for government in American life.

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