‘We the peo­ple’ . . . oh, let’s skip that

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - danamil­bank@wash­post.com

It was a straight­for­ward propo­si­tion: The new House Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity would lead the cham­ber in read­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion. But noth­ing in Congress is straight­for­ward, and the moment the law­mak­ers be­gan the ex­er­cise Thurs­day morn­ing, they bogged down in a dis­pute. They couldn’t agree on which ver­sion to read. Now most Amer­i­cans are of the im­pres­sion that there isn’t, say, a King James ver­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion and a New In­ter­na­tional ver­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion. There is only one ver­sion. But our lead­ers had other views.

“Will we be read­ing the en­tire orig­i­nal doc­u­ment with­out dele­tion?” in­quired Rep. Jay Inslee (DWash.).

“ Those por­tions su­per­seded by amend­ment will not be read,” de­clared Rep. Bob Good­latte (R-Va.).

“We have not been able to re­view the ex­act lan­guage we will be read­ing,” Inslee per­sisted. This pro­duced laugh­ter on the GOP side. “I don’t take it very lightly,” Rep. Jesse Jack­son Jr. (D-Ill.) re­torted, that “ be­fore we be­gin the read­ing of our sa­cred doc­u­ment, [col­leagues] are rais­ing ques­tions about what we will specif­i­cally be read­ing, what specif­i­cally will be redacted.”

“ They are not dele­tions!” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) coun­tered.

The right of the peo­ple’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives nois­ily to as­sem­ble shall not be abridged.

In fact, there is only one ver­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion — and it wasn’t what the law­mak­ers read aloud. What the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity de­cided to read was a san­i­tized Con­sti­tu­tion — an ex­cerpted ver­sion of the found­ing doc­u­ment con­jur­ing a fan­ci­ful land that never counted a black per­son as three-fifths of a white per­son, never de­nied women the right to vote, never al­lowed slav­ery and never banned liquor.

The idea of read­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion aloud was gen­er­ated by the Tea Party as a way to reaf­firm law­mak­ers’ fealty to the framers, but in prac­tice it did the op­po­site. In de­cid­ing to omit ob­jec­tion­able pas­sages that were later al­tered by amend­ment, the new ma­jor­ity jet­ti­soned “orig­i­nal­ist” and “con­struc­tion­ist” be­liefs and cre­ated — dare it be said? — a “ liv­ing Con­sti­tu­tion” pruned of the founders’ mis­steps. No­body’s proud of the three-fifths com­pro­mise, but how can we learn from our found­ing if we aren’t hon­est about it?

The se­lec­tive con­sti­tu­tional read­ing was the lat­est in­di­ca­tion that, for all the talk of hon­or­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion, Tea Party-in­fused law­mak­ers are more in­ter­ested in edit­ing it. Some have talked of re­peal­ing the 14th Amend­ment, which gives birthright cit­i­zen­ship and guar­an­tees equal pro­tec­tion. The new ma­jor­ity leader has en­dorsed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would al­low a group of states to nul­lify fed­eral laws.

On Thurs­day, Repub­li­cans said the se­lec­tive read­ing of the Con­sti­tu­tion was ap­proved by the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, but it of­ten seemed willy-nilly. Read­ers skipped right over the three-fifths com­pro­mise and the bit about es­caped slaves. They ne­glected to cut a pas­sage guar­an­tee­ing the vote to “male in­hab­i­tants” who are at least 21, but they lopped off the en­tire Pro­hi­bi­tion amend­ment.

The read­ing at times had all the grav­ity of a high-school foot­ball game. When it came to the part stat­ing that the pres­i­dent must be a “nat­u­ral born cit­i­zen,” a birther in the pub­lic gallery screamed: “Ex­cept Obama! Ex­cept Obama! Help us, Je­sus!”

Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) — en­dorsed by the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion — was as­signed the Sec­ond Amend­ment, the read­ing of which in­duced Gohmert to pump a fist in the air. The or­ga­nizer of the read­ing, Good­latte, saved for him­self the plum 10th Amend­ment, giv­ing power to the states; he botched the word­ing but Repub­li­cans ap­plauded any­way.

Mo­ments later, Democrats clapped when they heard the 14th Amend­ment. Both sides cheered Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) when he read out the 13th Amend­ment out­law­ing slav­ery, but no­body hailed the 16th, cre­at­ing the fed­eral in­come tax.

The law­mak­ers be­gan their task with en­thu­si­asm. NewRep. Al­lenWest (R-Fla.) ar­rived early and snagged a cen­ter-aisle seat. Rep. Den­nis Kucinich (D-Ohio), find­ing front-row seats full, squeezed into one al­ready oc­cu­pied by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). Mi­nor­ity leader Nancy Pelosi, as­signed Ar­ti­cle I, Sec­tion I, rose too soon, then tripped walk­ing down the aisle for her con­sti­tu­tional star turn.

But be­fore long, Reps. Phil Gin­grey (R-Ga.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) were yawn­ing. A dozen oth­ers, in­clud­ing Reps. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), Mac Thorn­berry (R-Neb.) and Scott Gar­rett (R-N. J.), were typ­ing on their Black­Ber­rys. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) was pay­ing so lit­tle at­ten­tion that he read the same pas­sage the guy be­fore him had read. Var­i­ous of his col­leagues dropped or sub­sti­tuted words and phrases, or read too much— leav­ing five dis­ap­pointed law­mak­ers still await­ing their turn when the read­ing ended.

No wor­ries: If the new ma­jor­ity per­sists in its de­sire to re­write the Con­sti­tu­tion, there will be plenty of ad­di­tional pas­sages to read next time.

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