America Debates the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day, marking the day in 1787 when the Framers signed the document they’d spent that long hot summer drafting and sent it out to the states for ratification. In a striking change from not that many years ago, this morning’s papers bring us two significant articles about the current debate over the document.

In The New York Times, Kate Zernike’s “On Day Devoted to Constitution, a Fight Over It” notes how the Tea Party has made the Constitution sexy again, but how doing so has become occasion for battle. Progressive groups, she writes, “accusing the Tea Party of selectively reading the founding document, have responded with a campaign to ‘take back the Constitution’”—the very cry we’ve heard from the Tea Party since its inception three years ago.

Meanwhile, in this morning’s Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold’s “Congress finds, and lists, meaning in Constitution” focuses on the pledge House Republicans took last January to cite the constitutional authority for any measure they introduced and on how that pledge has played out since then. Not surprisingly, it’s a mixed record, as he details.

But the larger lesson to be drawn from both articles should not be missed. We are again talking about the Constitution. And as Zernike writes, “In one respect, the Tea Party has already won. When groups on the left talk about the Constitution, they are increasingly emphasizing the original text — as the originalists do — rather than the Supreme Court decisions that have upheld programs like Social Security.” That is a distinction we at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies have long drawn, namely, that there’s all the difference in the world between modern “constitutional law”—the post-New Deal Supreme Court decisions we live under today—and the Constitution itself.

And we’ll take credit too for helping to bring this debate back to life, because when the Center was created 22 years ago, we took it as central to our mission to revive that debate—in particular,  to help change the climate of ideas to one more conducive to reviving the Framers’ Constitution of liberty through limited government. Toward that end, two days ago we held our tenth annual Constitution Day conference, releasing there our tenth annual Cato Supreme Court Review.

Read this morning’s articles. Then go here for answers to many of the questions they raise.