What The Teaparty Wants From The Constitution
I’m very curious to know what the GOP — or the tea partyers they’re presumably pandering to — think will happen when every piece of legislation requires “a statement from its sponsor outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such legislation.” What’s the evidence that this will make legislation more, rather than less, constitutional, for whatever your definition of the Constitution is?
Let’s take an example: Most legislation doesn’t currently include a statement of constitutional authority. But there’s one recent measure that did: Section 1501 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That is to say, the individual mandate.
“The individual responsibility requirement provided for in this section (in this subsection referred to as the requirement) is commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce,” reads the opening paragraph. Shortly thereafter, the legislation makes itself more explicit: “In United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Association (322 U.S. 533 (1944)), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that insurance is interstate commerce subject to Federal regulation.”
Has that statement convinced the GOP that the individual mandate is constitutional? Of course not. Currently, two judges have ruled in favor of the provision and one judge has ruled against. The split has been clean across partisan lines. The political verdicts have been little different: Sen. Chuck Grassley went from co-sponsoring an individual mandate in June of 2009 when it was still an idea connected to Republicans to condemning it as unconstitutional a few months later when it was clear that President Obama owned it and no Republicans would be joining his health-care bill.
My friends on the right don’t like to hear this, but the Constitution is not a clear document. Written more than 200 years ago, when America had 13 states and very different problems, it rarely speaks directly to the questions we ask it. The Second Amendment, for instance, says nothing about keeping a gun in the home if you’ve not signed up with a “well-regulated militia,” but interpreting the Second Amendment broadly has been important to those who want to bear arms. And so they’ve done it.
That’s their right, of course. Liberals pick and choose their moments of textual fidelity as well. But as the seemingly endless series of 5-4 splits on the Supreme Court shows, even the country’s most experienced and decorated constitutional authorities routinely disagree, and sharply, over what the text means when applied to today’s problems. To presume that people writing what they think the Constitution means — or, in some cases, want to think it means — at the bottom of every bill will change how they legislate doesn’t demonstrate a reverence for the document. It demonstrates a disengagement with it as anything more than a symbol of what you and your ideological allies believe.
In reality, the tea party — like most everyone else — is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution. When the constitutional disclaimers at the bottom of bills suit them, they’ll respect them. When they don’t — as we’ve seen in the case of the individual mandate — they won’t.
By: Ezra Klein-Washington Post, 12/30/10: Photo credit: Todd Gipstein/National Geographic/Getty Images
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