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Congress' Constitution Reading: New Chance To Debate Document

U.S. Constitution i i

hide captionU.S. Constitution

unknown/National Archives
U.S. Constitution

U.S. Constitution

unknown/National Archives

The reading of the Constitution on the House floor Thursday is a congressional rarity. According to historians it's only happened twice before.

It's a bit of political theater intended by House Republicans to signal to the Tea Party movement that they got it, so to speak. The Tea Partiers have made strict adherence to the Constitution a founding principle.

Trouble is, it's something of a parodox to strictly adhere to a document whose creators intentionally left so many things vague in order to win ratification, which was far from assured.

A reminder of that truth about just how open the Constitution is to interpretation is found in the explanatory version provided by the New York Times and aptly headlined: "Reading Between the Battle Lines of the Constitution: An Annotated Guide."

For example, this is what the annotation says about Article I, section 8, clause 18 of the Constitution which ambiguously states that Congress  has the power to:

"... Make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."

From the NYT annotator:

Article I, section 8, clause 18, dictates that Congress has the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for carrying out the powers of the federal government. To progressives, “necessary and proper” is broad language inserted by the founders to allow the Constitution to evolve. Alexander Hamilton cited it as the justification for establishing a central bank; Tea Party supporters say there is no provision for the Federal Reserve in the Constitution.

For a more richly annotated version, check out the Government Printing Office site.

Meanwhile, as I've written before, the Constitution doesn't specifically give the Supreme Court the power to review and find acts of Congress unconstitutional. That stems from Chief Justice John Marshall's seminal opinion in the 1803 case Marbury v Madison.

Then there's the matter of federal versus state sovereignty. Again, it's another area the Founders decided to leave intentionally cloudy as a form of compromise.

As historian Joseph Ellis writes in his "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies  at the Founding of the Republic":

"At the practical level, however, the Constitution had created a political framework in which state versus federal sovereignty was an ongoing negotiation to be resolved on a case by case basis. Embedded in the document, as (James) Madison now read it, was an argument about the political efficacy of the argument itself. Instead of a fatal weakness, the deliberate blurring of sovereignty was an abiding strength..."

So what the Constitution "means" in many respects is frequently in the eyes of the beholders.

And in our representative democracy, if one set of beholders has more votes than another set, including on the Supreme Court, their interpretation tends to win. That won't change even if the Constitution is read on the House floor every day that Congress is in session.

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