Monday, January 3, 2011

Mourning Constitutional

So, the House Republicans want to honor our founding document by reading it out loud on the floor of the Congress.  They may be surprised to learn that the Constitution does not say what they think it says.  As constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar explains, the Constitution charters a "very broad federal power" and is not a narrow states' rights document.  Firedoglake has a clever post on the various constitutional clauses the Republicans may want to gloss over, including that Congress has the power to collect taxes and provide for the general welfare; that the President has the power to make recess appointments; that treaties made under the authority of the U.S. shall be the supreme law of the land; that no religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office.  And then there is the entire bill of rights, which, among other things, bars Congress from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion," ensures that people should be secure from "unreasonable searches and seizures," and bars the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Contrary to holding the Constitution sacrosanct as they profess, the right tends to pick and choose the parts of the Constitution they like and those they would rather ignore.  In fact, these same conservatives are hoping to rewrite the Constitution they pretend to treasure so dearly, having proposed at least 42 amendments in the last Congress, including a proposal to abolish so-called birthright citizenship, by amending the Fourteenth Amendment which grants American citizenship to anyone born in the United States.  As the Washington Times reports, "other widely supported Republican amendments would prohibit government ownership of private companies, bar same-sex marriage, require a two-thirds vote in Congress to raise taxes, and prohibit desecration of the American flag."

Another constitutional amendment, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, would permit two-thirds of the states to nullify any federal law they collectively dislike.  Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor supports this "Repeal Amendment," which he argues "would provide a check on the ever-expanding federal government, protect against Congressional overreach, and get the government working for the people again, not the other way around."

I happen to be reading Jeff Shesol's excellent book, Supreme Power, on FDR's battles with the Supreme Court over the New Deal.  Shesol writes about the American Liberty League, a group of extreme conservatives whose ostensible goal was to "defend and uphold the Constitution," but who really sought to undermine New Deal programs.  The League's cynical embrace of the Constitution and its fear mongering about a "socialist takeover" is strikingly similar to the Tea Party tactics of today.  The big difference, thus far, is that FDR and his allies fought back.

The right has always shown a genius for hijacking the symbols of this nation in order to put a populist spin on policies that are anything but populist -- policies that favor unregulated big business and big money and disfavor social programs and minority and immigrant rights.  Because their efforts seem so laughably hypocritical -- and the symbols they rely on deemed so sacred -- liberals have far too often failed to challenge their methods and end up ceding the terms of the debate.  Democrats in Congress must not allow this latest cheap political stunt to go unanswered.


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