When the 112th Congress convenes this week, the Republican leadership will begin with a reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives-an interesting idea, met with media skepticism. "Is this a gimmick?" asked Norah O'Donnell of MSNBC's Daily Rundown to Washington Post writer Ezra Klein (see video clip below).
"Yes," Klein replied without hesitation. He went on to explain that it-meaning the reading, not the Constitution itself-has no binding power on subsequent House actions. And besides, according to Klein, the Constitution is confusing and hard to understand these days because it's really old: "over a hundred years old," to be precise.
Klein went on to deride the proposed House rule that all new bills have to indicate their constitutional justification, noting that the last bill to include such a clause was Obamacare, which justified the individual mandate under the interstate commerce clause of Article I. O'Donnell and Klein then shared a laugh over presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, who at a Tea Party rally quoted from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence while identifying it as the preamble to the Constitution.
But seriously, folks, both sides wave the Constitution like a flag when it suits them-so how can either side really be respecting it?
This is like saying that all religions claim to be true, therefore none of them are really true. I tried an experiment this morning before writing this column: I read the Constitution. Including the Bill of Rights, it took 20 minutes, and I even took time to scribble a few notes in the margin. A few places are hard to understand without a little historical background, but I wouldn't call it confusing. Not as confusing, say, as a 2,500-plus page healthcare bill or a 1,000-plus page omnibus spending bill.
Ezra Klein seems to accept the postmodernist view that a text has no integrity of its own: It means what you want it to mean. Liberals have one interpretation; conservatives have another; therefore the Constitution is up for grabs depending on who's in power. And therefore a public reading on the House floor is a mere gimmick.
If Klein means that such a reading won't cast a magical incantation over future House bills, he's right. But if he means that the gesture is only a kind of victory lap for Republicans, I'm guessing he's wrong. Reading the Constitution at the opening session is a symbolic act, but not an empty one. It's calling our legislative body back to its roots, and reminding them that "We the People" are out here, watching their every move. I'd call it a good start.