Congress Reads the Constitution, Tea Party-Style

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

As the 112th Congress convened on Thursday, January 6, 2011, the first order of business was a religious ritual designed to underscore the import of a historic transition of power: a reading of the US Constitution. Or rather, a reading of it without some of its ickier original parts, such as the original fugitive slave provision quoted above. It was constitutional fundamentalism without some of the fundamentals.

Governing by the Letter

The constitutional reading came as part of a Tea Party-inspired crusade to compel every proposed bill to justify itself with a reference to a constitutional provision allowing it. Such a return to the fundamentals, so the logic goes, will prevent any further “monstrosities” such as last year’s health care reform, and focus citizens’ attention on our national Bible. The goal, its backers suggested, was to “underscore the limited-government rules the Founders imposed on Congress—and to try to bring some of those principles back into everyday legislating.” The point is to govern by the letter of the original document, and not to interpret its “spirit.”

Newly-minted Speaker of the House John Boehner began the Congressional proceedings, reading the Preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Over 130 members of the House of Representatives, of both parties, participated in the reading. Individual members took the task of reading provisions of particular importance to them. Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Georgia) reading of the 13th Amendment brought the House down.

The reading of the Constitution stands as symbolically important for those who insist that the 111th Congress strayed further from constitutional fundamentalism than any in history, or at least since FDR’s reign. It was also an act never undertaken during the years when Vice-President Cheney spoke of circumventing the Constitution to engage with our enemies on the “dark side,” or when former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales famously led the delegation to the hospital bed of the seriously ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure his signature on authorization to engage in an intrusive surveillance and warrantless wiretapping program which the Justice Department previously had ruled as illegal.

The civil religious act also speaks to the particular form of fundamentalism favored by Tea Party advocates: if we stick to the original intent, they say, then we will recognize the limitations of government. It’s a reasoning, of course, closely paralleling the way religious conservatives typically approach the Bible. The Constitution, like the Bible, is carved in stone; it is not a living document to be interpreted according to our own whims, but only according to the sacred words of the founder(s).

But like the religious fundamentalists, the Tea Party-inspired constitutional recitation immediately ran into the problems any fundamentalism has with sacred scripture: what do you do with the parts that speak to the original intent of an entirely different era—stoning adulterers, casting down fire on one’s enemies, selling all one’s possessions and giving to the poor, requiring the return of runaway slaves, and counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation?

The answer was simply to skip over the constitutional passages that had been superseded by further amendments. Some of these are minor matters, but the original passages on slavery speak directly to the heart of the original intent of the document. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Virginia), who proposed the reading in the first place, insisted that his “intent was to read the Constitution as it currently operates,” and that he was “not trying to protect the framers of the Constitution.” James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), responded that “it could have been very educational if all the members talked about the United States Constitution as a living document, talked about how this country wrestled with things like race and gender.”

A Refuge for the Powerful

It could be even more educational if a central tenet of American historical writing about the Constitution—that it was made once, and then completely remade through the affirmative and far-reaching exercise of federal power to remake citizenship undertaken during the Civil War and Reconstruction—could have been part of the discussion. Only a serious grappling with the original passages would make that possible. The great struggle of the nineteenth century was over those passages, and the social reality they signified. Anti-slavery leaders understood then, as civil rights leaders did a generation later, that constitutional fundamentalism was a refuge for the powerful, and that progress toward the ideals of the Declaration of Independence required dissent from the letter of constitutional law.

What we had in the congressional constitutional reading, in short, was a failure to communicate in any historically meaningful sense. The Constitution could not have come about at all without recognition of an original intent to protect rights of human property, or without the Solomonic compromise over whether that human property counted for purposes of taxation and representation. Skipping over those passages is rather like skipping over the biblical passages that leave us uncomfortable, and that require our own forms of annotation, amendments, or just simple recognition of historical context—and the fact that interpretations of documents of course do evolve.

As I heard clips of the speakers reading the Constitution (which finally devolved into total boredom, as just a handful of members remained to hear the reading of the 27th Amendment), I was reminded of the daily Bible readings in my public grade school in the late 1960s and early 1970s—nearly a decade after such a practice theoretically had been ruled unconstitutional. News of that ruling apparently had not reached the teachers of my home room in small-town Oklahoma. They made sure to read just the appropriate parts, and not anything from the sacred scriptures that could force us to confront the time, place, or context from which those words originated. Very little from the Old Testament (save for the creation story from Genesis) made the cut, and the weirder parts of the Book of Revelation also were, I assume, best put to one side of the room and ignored, like the crazy distant relative at Thanksgiving.

But the passages skipped at the constitutional reading on Thursday were not the equivalent of the crazy distant relative. Instead, they were our immediate family members. The constitutional fundamentalism of Rep. Goodlatte wants to deny the fact that they sat at the head of the table in our origins, and that they no longer do so because the evolving Constitution sometimes lives according to the better angels of our nature.