Today POLITICO Arena asks:
In light of today’s reading of the Constitution in the new House, what misinterpretations of the Constitution do you regularly see in American politics? And are House Republicans implying that the previous Democratic majority did not have a firm grasp of the government’s founding document?
Thanks to the Tea Party, as I wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Congress seems to be rediscovering the Constitution — or at least many House Republicans seem to be. When members read the document aloud today, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they’ll be throwing down a marker: “We take the Constitution seriously, and intend to abide by its principles.” If true, how refreshing.
This is not a partisan matter. As many Republicans have said — albeit, some only after November’s elections — both parties for years have ignored the Constitution’s limits on political power. To confirm that, we need look no further than to James Madison, the principal author of the document, who assured skeptical ratifiers in Federalist 45 that the powers authorized by the Constitution were “few and defined.” That hardly describes today’s federal behemoth.
Thus, the main “misinterpretation” has been over the very idea of constitutional limits — particularly as inherent in the doctrine of enumerated powers, the principle that “We the People” gave Congress only 18 enumerated powers. The Commerce Clause, for example, was written mainly to ensure interstate commerce unfettered by state interference, not to enable Congress to regulate every aspect of life. And the General Welfare Clause was meant to limit Congress’s taxing power pursuant to its enumerated ends to objects of national, not particular, concern: it wasn’t meant to enable Congress to redistribute private wealth at will.
The great change came during the New Deal, of course, after FDR’s infamous Court packing threat, when a cowed Court began turning the Constitution on its head. But don’t take my word for that constitutional legerdemain. Here’s Roosevelt, writing to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1935: “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.” And here’s Rexford Tugwell, one of the principal architects of the New Deal, reflecting on his handiwork some 30 years later: “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document [i.e., the Constitution] intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing.
So when today’s liberals tell us the Constitution authorizes the vast federal programs that now reduce so many Americans to government dependents, they reveal their historical ignorance — or their political ambition. And they’re reduced to the silliness we saw in Tuesday’s New York Times, where the Times editorialists ranted against today’s constitutional reading as “a theatrical production of unusual pomposity.” Illustrating their own penchant for pomposity, they then dug into their bag of adjectives and let loose: “a self‐important flourish,” “their Beltway insider ritual of self‐glorification,” “a presumptuous and self‐righteous act,” “an air of vacuous fundamentalism,” “all of this simply eyewash,” “a ghastly waste of time.” They must have been emotionally drained when they finished their screed.
The Constitution is not a blank slate, details to follow, as decided by transient majorities. Were it that, it never would have been ratified. After all, we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of overweening government, and fought a Civil War to institute at last the grand principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nor will those principles be restored in a day. But today’s reading will start a debate that is sorely needed, at the end of which one can hope for restoration.