The TakeAway: The 112th Congress, mindful of the values that underlie the whole Constitution, needs to face up to its responsibility to make policies that advance the common good and a sustainable future.
This morning, for the first time ever on the floor of the full House, the U.S. Constitution was read in its entirety—a laudable event if it means that the new Congress understands what’s in it and behaves accordingly. Let’s hope the newly-elected members, especially Tea Partiers, take a purposeful, pragmatic view of their job and put away childish things. By “childish things” I mean dead hands and invisible hands, symbols bespeaking Tea Party and conservative Republican anger over federal overreach.
Their “dead hand” interpretation of the Constitution is driven by anger over health care reform; their “invisible hand” philosophy of unregulated markets was rocked by the passage of financial reform. But the nation’s problems have gotten so great that Congress needs to be creative, not creationist.
Dead hands and invisible hands are out of place in a nation in decline, with millions of Americans suffering economic insecurity and rising inequality. Along with our $14 trillion national debt, we’ve fallen behind global economies in economic innovation, educational performance, the clean energy race, and comprehensive climate and energy policy. And let’s not forget pending environmental catastrophes as signs of “Aflockalypse” Now.
Not that holding forth on the Constitution is a bad thing. I’m all for periodic reflection on foundational texts, be they sacred or secular. It’s a way of recharging the soul, resetting the moral compass. Thoughtful public debate is good—when was the last time you had a conversation about the meaning of “equal protection” or the separation of church and state?
But if you’re going to read something as important as the Constitution, you ought to read it in its entirety and ponder its meaning for now, not some 1787 sepia scene. You don’t get to pick out the parts you like and dismiss the rest.
That’s the general consensus among constitutional scholars, who consider Tea Party posturing as misguided or even, as Harvard law professor Charles Fried, Solicitor General in the Reagan administration, put it yesterday, “a combination of mistake, ignorance, and pure politics”. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick writes in “Read It and Weep” that the Tea Party’s new Constitution fetish is “hopelessly selective” because the document was deliberately written to raise more questions than answers. It wasn’t designed to solve the problems of a community at any level—locate, state, or national, Justice Steven Breyer writes in Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. And it wasn’t, he continues in his recent book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View, something handed down generations by the “dead hands“of the 18th century. Rather, the Constitution “trusts people to solve those problems themselves and creates a framework for a government that will help them do so”.
As for financial reform, experts say the future is murky—but the Republicans’ intentions are clear. This morning, The Hill’s Michael O’Brien reported that Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a member of the House Financial Services Committee and House Tea Party Caucus founder, released a bill today that would kill the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. “There’s no indication that House leaders intend to advance Bachmann’s bill,” O’Brien wrote, “though it enjoys co-sponsorship from several key lawmakers, including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)”. In response, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), former Financial Services chair, released a statement claiming Bachmann and her allies “want to reintroduce uncertainty by going back to exactly the situation that led to the financial crisis in the first place”.
Meanwhile, last month, Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the new House Financial Services chief, said that regulators should serve banks. And last week House Oversight chair Issa asked 150 of his business “friends” what federal regulations they’d like to see repealed or rewritten. (Perhaps he’s forgotten how the invisible hand of corporate self-regulation has worked out.) Issa also told Fox News Sunday that the Obama administration was one of the most “corrupt”—reminding some of Joe McCarthy who built his career on whipping up anti-Communist frenzy.
So as the Republicans head to Baltimore next weekend for their annual retreat, let’s hope they rediscover the same “positive passion for the public good” that, Justice Breyer wrote, John Adams and so many others believed was a precondition for Liberty and the “Republican Government” that the Constitution creates. Let’s hope they discover that our governance frameworks and markets work best when individual rights are linked to sustainable community and environmental well-being—and that this happens with human hands, not dead or invisible ones, because they’re the ones connected to the body politic.