More than 200 years after the first part was written, the Constitution produced standing ovations and strident but respectful debate as lawmakers from both parties read the government’s founding document on the House floor in its entirety — or nearly so.
A snafu caused lawmakers initially to skip over 115 words in Articles IV and V, and lawmakers intentionally omitted parts of the Constitution they said had been repealed or amended and therefore were no longer relevant. That sparked a debate between Republicans and Democrats, who said the document is a product of history and should be read in its entirety.
House Republicans, who pushed the exercise, said they hoped it would spark a sense of fealty to the document. But just hours after they concluded the reading, they found themselves grappling with a thorny constitutional problem —two of their members missed taking the oath of office Wednesday but had been voting as if they were properly sworn in.
Both parties said they will try to patch over the misstep, but not before Democrats blasted Republicans for sloppiness.
“Are we sure we’re through here? How many other people decided not to take the oath?” asked Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat.
Historians said Thursday marked the first time in the history of Congress that the Constitution was read in its entirety on the House floor, and Republicans said they hoped the reading sparked a renewed sense of the limits the founders intended to place on government.
“I hope that not just the members of the House —there’s been a tremendous interest in this nationwide — I hope it leads to more Americans taking an interest and following what the Constitution does, vis-a-vis constitutional authority,” said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who suggested the reading to his party’s leaders and led Thursday’s effort.
All told, 135 lawmakers read sections, alternating between Republicans and Democrats.
They skipped over the Eighteenth Amendment on prohibition and the three-fifths clause that declared for purposes of deciding representation that black slaves would be counted as three-fifths of free whites.
Republicans said the document has been amended, so they left out obsolete parts.
That drew criticism from Democrats, who said the entire document should be read because it is a matter of history and because it’s sometimes unclear exactly what has been changed.
“The amendments do not make specific deletions to specific language in the document,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat. “It could be subject to some interpretation which language has really been moved and which has not.”
Indeed, the version the lawmakers read included a section at the end of Article III, Section 2, Clause 1. But several other sources, including the Government Printing Office’s version, say that ending has been amended, and so it shouldn’t have been read.
Matthew Spalding, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for American Studies, said the first Congress debated exactly these issues of whether the Constitution should have redactions or additions.
“When the question first came up about amending the Constitution, there was discussion about whether the changes should be in the document itself or added to the end of the document as amendments, and they decided to go with the amendments —to leave the original text unchanged,” he said. “No amendment —with the possible exception of the repeal of the prohibition amendment —technically removes any words from the Constitution. They override but do not strike out the text. It’s not like those words disappear.”