Getting creative with the Constitution

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 8:00 PM

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 (D-Wash.).

"Those portions superseded by amendment will not be read," declared Rep.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 re-affirm 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. New Rep. Allen West (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.

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time Friday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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