- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2011

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over 115 words in Articles IV and V, and lawmakers intentionally omitted parts of the Constitution they said had been repealed or amended and therefore were no longer relevant.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.”

In another instance, a lawmaker appeared to have flipped too many pages at one time, causing the next reader to skip over the 115 words. Mr. Goodlatte later took to the House floor to read the omitted words into the Congressional Record.

Bipartisan honors

During the reading, he went out of order several times to offer special honors, including letting Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, read the opening of Article III, which constitutes the federal judiciary, and letting Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil rights icon, read the 13th Amendment that officially ended slavery.

Mr. Lewis drew a standing ovation from the chamber after he completed his reading.

Mr. Goodlatte reserved for himself reading the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically given to the federal government —an amendment that conservatives say has been ignored by Congress.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, read the First Amendment, and Rep. Frank Guinta, New Hampshire Republican, read the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms, earning the envy of his colleagues.

“You got to read the Second Amendment? Everybody wanted to read the Second Amendment,” Rep. Charles Bass, his fellow New Hampshire Republican, told him later.

One protester interrupted the reading during the part laying out the qualifications for president, seeming to challenge whether President Obama met the birth requirements. Mr. Obama holds a Hawaiian birth certificate, though some of his critics, without proof, have questioned its authenticity.

Mr. Goodlatte said that despite the few hiccups, the exercise went well. He said he even sensed some converts who been wary of the reading.

“A lot of people reacted initially in ways that they didn’t seem to adhere to,” he said. “One member who was very critical in the last couple of days came and read.”

One convert appeared to be Rep. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat, who just before the reading was on the floor chanting “Jobs! Jobs!” —seemingly protesting the exercise.

But he took a turn reading, and at the conclusion of the document he was the first lawmaker to leap to his feet and applaud.

His office didn’t return a message seeking comment.

The reading of the Constitution is just the first step in the GOP’s move to push the founding document to the forefront of political debates.

House Republicans wrote a new rule this year that requires all House bills to state a constitutional basis for the proposed action.

Mr. Spalding said the debate is welcome, but that Thursday’s debate also shows how much learning Congress has to do.

“The reading of the Constitution on the House floor is significant, and wonderfully sets the tone of the new Congress. What this episode shows —the reading, but also the important debates we’re going to have over constitutional citation in legislating —is that Congress’ constitutional muscles are extremely atrophied, and they’re going to have to learn to think again constitutionally,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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