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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 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."

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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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