Thursday, September 17, 2009

Constitution Day 2009

Today is the anniversary of the day in 1787 that the Framers of the United States Constitution signed the document and sent it on to the states for ratification.

On Monday, September 14, the House of Representatives passed a resolution (H.Res. 686) urging that:

(1) all high school seniors across the country should spend at least one week learning about the United States Constitution in September of their senior year, as knowledge of this historic document, which constitutes the very foundation of our country, is critical to being an effective citizen; and

(2) upon reaching voting age, high school seniors should engage in civic learning activities on an issue of importance to them to demonstrate their understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of the United States.
Ironically, the resolution, introduced by Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL8) and cosponsored by 222 others, itself contains a glaring error of historical fact. Can you catch it in this "whereas" clause?
Whereas a 1998 survey revealed that more teenagers knew who the `Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' was than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, more knew the star of the motion picture `Titanic' than who was the vice president of the United States, and more can name the Three Stooges and the 3 American Idol judges than can name the 3 branches of government;
(I'll fill you in: A "1998 survey" could not have included information about the three American Idol judges because American Idol did not premiere on U.S. television until June 2002.)

As well-intentioned as H.Res. 686 may be, a far more important bill, H.R. 450 (and its companion bill in the Senate, S. 1319), has been languishing with no action in either chamber.

Introduced by Representative John Shadegg (R-AZ3) and cosponsored by 51 others, H.R. 450 would "require Congress to specify the source of authority under the United States Constitution for the enactment of laws." Specifically, it says:
`Each Act of Congress shall contain a concise and definite statement of the constitutional authority relied upon for the enactment of each portion of that Act. The failure to comply with this section shall give rise to a point of order in either House of Congress. The availability of this point of order does not affect any other available relief.'
The Senate version, introduced by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and cosponsored by 21 others, is slightly different. It says:
Each Act of Congress shall contain a concise explanation of the specific constitutional authority relied upon for the enactment of each portion of that Act. The failure to comply with this section shall give rise to a point of order in either House of Congress. The availability of this point of order does not affect any other available relief.
S. 1319 also includes a provision for limiting debate according to Senate rules.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on June 23, Senator Coburn explained the rationale of the Enumerated Powers Act:
The whole purpose behind this bill is to say when you write a bill in this Congress and any Congress that follows it, you have to know in that bill where you get the authority in the Constitution to spend this money or to authorize this program. You can still introduce a bill without it, but it creates a point of order that says a Senator can challenge that bill on the basis of what the Constitution says because you have not clearly stated in this new piece of legislation where you get the authority as a Member of the Senate to author it when, in fact, it is outside the authority given to us under the Constitution. The bill then sets up a debate on which the Senate will have to vote. I am not so naive as to believe I will win a whole lot of those, but I know I will win something, because the American people want to hear that debate, and that debate is something they are not hearing today.

They are not hearing our justifications why we can take freedom away and we can make a bigger, more powerful Federal Government that is going to borrow more money from their children to spend on things we don't need, money we don't have. The American people are entitled to hear the reasoning behind why we know so much better than they do, and to hear the reasoning why we can ignore the wisdom of our Founders in terms of our ability to grow the Federal Government.

The Federal Government is far too big and far too removed from people's lives today. That is why we are feeling this rumble out in the country....

This bill, S. 1319, requires that each act of Congress shall contain a concise explanation of the authority, the specific constitutional authority under which this bill would be enacted. What it does is makes Congress go to the Constitution, and particularly article I, section 8, and say, here is where I get the authority. We won't win many of those arguments, even though many of the bills will be outside of the authority granted us under the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson thought such an exercise was vitally important--we have ignored his advice--he thought it was important for Congress to undertake in order to study what those who ratified the Constitution had in mind. In a letter in 1823, he said this:
On every question of construction, let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.
There is no question what the context and the meaning was of our Founders when they wrote out the enumerated powers section. We have prostituted it to our own demise. The words of Benjamin Franklin ring true today: Can we keep it. If we can keep it.

S. 1319 is a little exercise in self-discipline for the Senate that maybe we ought to be explaining to the American people where we think we get the authority to trample on the 10th amendment, to tell them what to do, how to do it, and by the way, we need some money to tell you how to do that. The whole goal of the Enumerated Powers Act is to make us accountable. My whole goal in the Senate has been transparency. We ought to be transparent about how we get or where we get or from where we get the authority to grow the size of this government even further and to make it less effective.
Bills such as S. 1319 and H.R. 450 should be non-controversial, yet certain Members of Congress refuse to commit to endorsing this legislation. For instance, according to a letter to the editor published in the Charlottesville Daily Progress on June 22:
On May 8th, a group of local citizens from the Jefferson Area Tea Party met with Congressman Tom Perriello, D-Albemarle, at his office. He was presented with a petition signed by over a thousand people who had attended the April Tax Day Tea Party. At this meeting we were able to speak with Mr. Perriello about our various concerns.

One question that we asked concerned the congressman’s views on HR 450, the Enumerated Powers Act. This is a very simple piece of legislation: “To require Congress to specify the source of authority under the United States Constitution for the enactment of laws, and for other purposes.” Mr. Perriello at the time was not familiar with the bill, but after it was explained to him stated that he did not see any problem with the legislation. He promised to check into it and get back to us....

After a month I was able to finally get an answer from the congressman’s office: He would not sign on as a co-sponsor to the bill. According to his office, he felt that any legislation that currently was being passed was constitutional, and if it were not the courts could settle any questions. This bill according to him was an unneeded redundancy.
Three members of the Virginia delegation, J. Randy Forbes (R-VA4), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA6), and Rob Wittman (R-VA1) are cosponsors of H.R. 450, as are South Carolina's Joe Wilson (R-SC2), Arizona's Jeff Flake (R-AZ6), and former presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX14). One has to ask why House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA7) and the other Republican from Virginia, Frank Wolf (R-VA10), have not cosponsored this simple piece of legislation. (None of Virginia's Democratic Members of Congress, including Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb, have cosponsored either H.R. 450 or S. 1319.)

As a tribute to the U.S. Constitution, let's turn to the rising generation, those who are the focus of H.Res. 686.

I captured this short video at the Jefferson Area Tea Party that was held in Charlottesville on Independence Day. In it, singer/songwriter Lisa Mei Norton's son, Joshua, recites the Preamble to the Constitution to a musical accompaniment. His effort was met with warm applause.

For those who may not be able to make out all of the words as recited, here's the text from the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
I remember being required to memorize the Preamble in fourth or fifth grade. Is that still an expectation of pupils in our elementary schools?

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1 comment:

Jared said...

Wow, I thought the constitution was signed in 1776! I guess you learn something everyday.