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Congress has a Constitution problem — many don’t understand document
Each of them takes an oath to defend the Constitution, but many House lawmakers either don’t understand the founding document or don’t take its precepts seriously, according to an analysis by The Washington Times that studied the constitutional backing that representatives submitted for each of the more than 3,000 bills they introduced in 2011.
Under rules that the new Republican majority put into place, each House member introducing a bill must cite specific parts of the Constitution that they think grant Congress the authority to take the action they are proposing.
The first year’s worth of action was less than inspiring for adherents of the founding document: Many lawmakers ignored the rule, while others sliced and diced the clauses to justify what they were trying to do. One thumbed his nose at the exercise altogether, saying it’s up to the courts, not Congress, to determine what is constitutional.
Most striking of all is how little the statements mattered in the debates on the bills. They were mentioned just a handful of times on the floor, and didn’t foster the constitutional conversation that Republican lawmakers said they wanted to spark.
“A lot of people were wanting it to be a mechanism for actually forcing something to happen. And that didn’t happen. And I think it didn’t happen because, by its very nature, it’s not the right mechanism for doing it,” said Matthew Spalding, vice president of American studies at the Heritage Foundation.
He helped push for the rule two years ago and said it can be a good tool to teach about the Constitution, but it’s not the way to enforce limits.
“This thing does not bear that burden,” he said.
Republicans took control of the House in 2011 with vows to restore fealty to the Constitution after two years of fights over the limits of congressional and executive power. Constitutional authority statements were just one part of that effort.
The House also kicked off the last Congress by hosting a reading of the full Constitution on the chamber floor — the first time that had been done. On Tuesday, the 113th Congress will start with another reading.
“One of the resounding themes I have heard from my constituents is that Congress should adhere to the Constitution and the finite list of powers it grants to the federal government,” said new House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who has organized the reading both times.
The Washington Times studied 3,764 bills introduced in the first year and found some patterns in the authority statements: The most commonly cited authority was Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, which establishes Congress‘ power to tax and spend “for the common defense and general welfare.” Close behind, however, was the commerce clause — Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 — which has come under fire by many conservatives for being stretched well beyond the Founding Founders’ intent.
Lawmakers cited 70 authorities, including 56 bills under the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers to the states rather than to Congress, and 12 under the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.
“The thing that jumped out is how many parts of the Constitution members of Congress seem to think grant them legislative authority,” said Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center. “I wouldn’t have thought the 10th Amendment, which is about not legislating, or the First Amendment, which says ‘Congress shall make no law,’ would be fertile ground for legislative authority.”
Like Mr. Spalding, he said the reality has fallen short of its drafters’ hopes.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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