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Two new rules will give Constitution a starring role in GOP-controlled House

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.

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The moment seems designed for maximum effect. Many lawmakers will participate, with one representative reading a portion of the document before yielding the floor to another representative to continue reading and so forth. Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Democratic lawmakers are welcome to participate.

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"We always hear members of Congress talking about swearing an oath to represent their constituents, when in reality the only oath we take is to the Constitution," Boehner said in a speech this fall. "We pledge 'to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.' No more, no less."

The House historian's office found no record of the Constitution ever having been read aloud on the chamber's floor, although twice lawmakers have submitted the text into the Congressional Record. Roswell Flower (D-N.Y.) did so in 1882 and Thomas Reilly (D-Conn.) in 1915, according to House Historian Matthew Wasniewski.

The historic nature of next week's reading came as a surprise to some tea party leaders.

"That's pretty extraordinary," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "It shows the extraordinary times now. Regular people all across the country are focused on the Constitution, and the message was sent to Congress we want them to do the same."

Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale Law School, said he supports the reading. "I like the Constitution," said Amar, author of "America's Constitution: A Biography." "Heck, I'll do them one better. Why only once in January? Why not once every week?"

But he added: "My disagreement is when we actually read the Constitution as a whole, it doesn't say what the tea party folks think it says."

Amar argues that the Constitution charters a "very broad federal power" and is not the narrow states' rights document that tea party activists present it as.

The constitutional authority rule will restart this debate with each new bill. Every measure will require a statement from its sponsor outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such legislation.

This is such a big change to the daily routine on Capitol Hill that Republican leaders distributed a five-page memo to lawmakers outlining how to determine a bill's constitutional authority. They also held training sessions for legislative aides.

The rule has been a top tea party priority; it was the No. 1 recommendation in the movement's "Contract From America."

"It's a big deal," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks. "That's a very basic starting point for all legislation - not only should we do it, can we afford to pay for it, but can we do it?"

The ongoing debate over the nation's recent health-care overhaul is rooted in questions of constitutionality. The Constitution does not explicitly allow an individual mandate for health care, but supporters of the law make several arguments, including that the Constitution gives Congress the authority to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper" to provide for the "general Welfare."

They also argue that Congress has the power to regulate health care under its authority to regulate interstate commerce, and has done so when it has directly regulated the health care industry.

Opponents, however, argue that the courts have never interpreted the Constitution as guaranteeing a right to health care, and they consider the health-care law an overreach that the nation's Founding Fathers would condemn.

This debate about constitutionality has split largely along partisan lines, leading some legal scholars to say the new House rule might be more about playing politics than anything else.

"I see this as a statement of the Republican Party, heavily influenced by the tea party, that we are the defenders of the Constitution and we will exercise our constitutional responsibilities seriously in ways the Democrats did not," said Neil Siegel, a law professor at Duke University.

Interpretations of the Constitution can vary widely. Where a Democratic lawmaker could see constitutional grounds for a bill, say by citing an oft-referenced clause in Article 1 that gives Congress the power to regulate commerce, a Republican lawmaker could argue the opposite.

For tea party activists, this will be the true test of whether GOP leaders are taking the Constitution seriously.

"You can do the talk, but you have to do the walk," said Clifford Atkin, a leader of the New Boston Tea Party in Woodbury, Conn., who likened the increased focus on the Constitution to a religious conversion.

Beth Mizell, who leads a loose affiliate of tea party activists in tiny Franklinton, La., has attended weekend classes on the Constitution that she compared to a church Bible study. She said she is heartened that Congress is taking these steps.

"It may be an olive branch," Mizell said. "People are excited to see that our leaders know there's a relevance to the Constitution in the process. But I don't think it will make people any less vigilant in looking at the laws that are being introduced."

ruckerp@washpost.com thompsonk@washpost.com


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