Saturday, January 8, 2011

John Boehner and Jared Loughner say: Read the US Constitution, but do they get it?

The new House rules require that bills be posted online for 72 hours before they come to the floor for a vote.

If this is a nod to the Tea Party movement, either the nodders are naive or the Tea Party movement has no clue what the Constitution really means.

One needs quite a lot more than a public reading of the US Constitution to unpack its meaning. For to understand the Constitution is not only know what it says, but how it works.

The more the House succeeds as a check against itself, the less it would be able to be a part the original checks and balances the Framers invented. The checks they envisioned were mostly inter-branch, not intra-branch.

Consider the various rules the House has now adopted to constrain its own powers. The Supreme Court doesn't do this. The President certainly does not. Whereas the House has mandated its members to post bills online for 72 hours before they are brought to the floor of the vote, presidents in the 20th century have been happy to conceal their actions behind the protective veil of "executive privilege." Whereas all bills and resolutions sent to the House now have to be accompanied by a statement of constitutional propriety, we are not likely to see a president voluntarily tie his/her hand like that. If anything, presidents purport to have independent authority to interpret the Constitution as they so please. Congress has now ceded its prerogative to do so.

The Tea Partiers do not appear to understand that power is a zero-sum game between the executive and legislative branches, and this is particularly ironic given that not a few of them are routing for the current president's political demise.

A weak legislative branch may beget a weak American state, and the latter, to be sure, is ultimately what the Tea Partiers want. But there is more than one branch able to the task of expanding the state. Tea Partiers might have missed the fact that whereas Republican legislators helped to expand the scope and size of the federal government during the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the 20th century, presidents have been the motive force behind the expansion of the American state. Think of Theodore Roosevelt and the civil service, Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security, Lyndon Johnson and Medicare. Crippling the legislature only makes it more susceptible to the executive whim. Betimes the executive exercises impulse control, but most of the time, presidents grow the state. Whether it pertains to the social security state or the military industrial complex, it's still the federal budget that has been exploding, and the emboldened executive of our times has quite a lot to do with it.

There are real consequences for our republic whenever someone one or one movement purports that someone else does not have the privilege of interpreting our Constitution. Quite often, they are simply ceding the interpretative power to someone else - either the President or less often, the Courts. Worse still is when the would-be constitutional purist reserves interpretation only for himself by purporting that the Constitution only needs to be read for its meaning to be manifest.

No, I am not talking about John Boehner, but Jared Loughner, the man taken into custody for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who wrote on a Youtube video the following:

"The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the Constitution of the United States of America.

You don't have to accept the federalist laws.

Nonetheless, read the United States' of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws.

You're literate, listener?"

By all means we should all read the Constitution. But reading the Bible never made any one God.

1 comment:

Alexander Furnas said...

Professor Lim,
Of course I agree with this on several levels:
1) The inter rather than intra branch checks point is well taken and oft-overlooked, unfortunately I suppose we can't have expected the tea partiers to have read their Montesquieu. Or can we, as you hint, assume that they sort of know they are making a weak legislative state? Can the Executive or the Courts really expand the Government all that much if the tea partiers can grid-lock congress so thoroughly that appropriations and budgets are forever stalled?

2) Anyone claiming that there are obvious or simple answers when interpreting and applying a 223 year old and necessarily evolutionary document to contemporary problems -problems increasingly technically nuanced, interconnected and complicated - is either selling or buying a particularly dangerous brand of snake-oil.

3) The clearly psychotic and frequently nonsensical syllogisms featured in Loughner's disturbing videos - if taken as demonstrative of the power and quality of "citizen interpreters" - seem nearly enough to make one question the "of/by the people" foundations of the democratic endeavor.

However, I worry that the a citizenry so discouraged and removed from the process of interpretation needs whatever it can get. Public feelings of "ownership" of legislation (and even more so for the Constitution) is a valuable thing - it is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.
Clearly in this specific case catastrophe resulted when a disturbed man believed that, when it came to the Constitution, reading the "Bible" *did* make him God. But perhaps, if everyone believed it so - at least a little bit - we'd have a lot more amateur constitutional scholars, a lot more public discourse, and a more substantive debate. And isn't that really what we need?