Last week the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives arranged for members to read the U.S. Constitution aloud during a legislative session. That had never been done, they said. It still hasn’t.
Of course, the Constitution provides the legal basis for Congress and the rest of the federal government, and has never been far from its deliberations. Members of Congress swear to protect it. The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) was known for handing out copies from his pockets.
These days the text of the Constitution is easier to find than ever. I have copies in booklets, reference books, and computer files. There’s a standard text, and an annotated text from the Congressional Research Service, noting which clauses have been superseded by amendment. The Supreme Court’s interpretations of the document are more voluminous, of course, and ongoing.
But the House leadership didn’t like the standard historical text. Those men apparently wanted to avoid having members recorded reading clauses that protected slavery, like the “three-fifths” and fugitive clauses. Their choice produced objections from other House members who wanted that history recognized explicitly instead of implicitly by reading the whole document.
The Republican leadership also didn’t want members to read the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, though they did include the subsequent Twentieth-first Amendment, which makes no sense without the text it repeals. Passages on the Electoral College and the Vice President’s election, showing that the founders’ system never worked as intended, were also silently removed.
Nevertheless, as Bob Fuss at CBS News, Dahlia Lithwick at Slate, and Matthew J. Franck at National Review Online pointed out, the scrubbed text still included passages and details that have been superseded by later amendments.
The most embarrassing moment of this episode, however, came when Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) started reading, “or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…” He began in the middle of a sentence, and what he read made no sense with what had come before. The reading had skipped a page. Fortenberry later told the Omaha World-Herald that he knew he was in the wrong place, but he read what was in front of him anyway.
And no one spoke up. If members of Congress in the chamber were following along in their own copies, or familiar enough with the Constitution to recognize the error, they said nothing. Not even, “Mr. Speaker, did we skip a page?” Maybe they thought that the missing text was one of the parts that had been edited out.
The organizer of the reading, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), later read the missing text into the Congressional Record, much as individual representatives have inserted the whole text in the past. But the full Constitution has still never been read aloud in a House session.
The Congressional Record will include the edited text that the House wanted to read, though I can’t find that text on the web. (There’s a C-SPAN transcript of the session.) Apparently this is another of the limits on the new leadership’s “openness.”
Most observers say this theatrical exercise was staged for the benefit of the Tea Party, adherents of which so revere the Constitution that some wish to change the legal meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, alter the Sixteenth Amendment, rescind the Seventeenth Amendment, add a nullification process, and overlook the prohibition on religious tests for office and religious establishment. Of course, the Tea Party also complains about wasteful government action, and they might question the value of an errant reading of the Constitution.
POSTSCRIPT: In its article on the House reading, New York Times reported this detail:
“I just read the First Amendment!” Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, said gleefully as she exited the floor.As most people have no doubt heard, Rep. Giffords was shot at a public event in her district yesterday.
“I wanted to be here, I think it’s important,” Ms. Giffords said. “Reflecting on the Constitution in a bipartisan way is a good way to start the year.”