'To form a more perfect Union,' but reading sparks some division

By Philip Rucker and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 7, 2011; A01

Finally the time had come to recite the Constitution aloud on the House floor. But first came the bickering over which parts of the nation's founding document to read at all.

House Republicans, who orchestrated the symbolic exercise as an early gesture to the tea party movement, touted it as a way to bring the new Congress, and the people they represent, back to America's roots.

But they didn't want to go all the way back.

They skipped several passages that no longer apply, including those that condoned slavery, angering some Democrats. On a day designed to celebrate the Founding Fathers' growing role in the nation's political discourse, Democrats accused Republicans of distorting history and the men who wrote it.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House's top-ranking African American, declined to participate in the reading. He said omitting the slavery clauses amounted to "revisionist history."

"It could have been very educational if all the members talked about the United States Constitution as a living document, talked about how this country wrestled with things like race and gender," Clyburn said in an interview.

But they didn't. Lawmakers of both parties were called forth, more than 130 in all, to recite passages - and said no more.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led the floor proceedings, defended the decision to choose an edited version of the document. He said he consulted the Congressional Research Service, among other sources, and that he was not trying to protect the framers of the Constitution.

"The intent was to read the Constitution as it currently operates," Goodlatte said in an interview.

'We the people . . . '

The exercise began on a historic note - never before had the Constitution been read aloud on the floor of the House.

Newly minted Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was first up and had the honor of reciting three of the most famous words in American history, and the celebrated preamble that follows them.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . "

In a display of bipartisanship, he was followed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who tripped as she walked down the aisle but composed herself before reading Article I, Section 1, the passage that establishes Congress.

Then rank-and-file members stepped forward, in the order in which they were seated and alternating by party.

The grandeur of the moment quickly faded for the lawmakers, as the one-hour-23-minute exercise quickly drove many to boredom. Some who had been following with their government-issued pocket Constitutions started thumbing their BlackBerrys instead. They fidgeted in their seats. They scratched their heads and left to get bottles of water.

Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) put on his reading glasses and followed along attentively with his pocket Constitution for the first hour or so, until it was his turn to read. He recited from Article I, Section 8: "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers . . . "

Then, like many of his colleagues did after reciting their lines, West returned his Constitution to his suit pocket and walked out of the chamber.

The reading was interrupted when the clock hit 11:31. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) was reading from Article II, Section 1, the mandate that only a "natural-born citizen" may be elected president, when a woman rose in the public gallery and shouted: "Except Obama! Except Obama! Help us, Jesus! My name is Theresa . . . "

Before the "birther" could say her surname, she was removed by police guards.

The new Republican House majority has made the Constitution a part of the daily rhythms of Congress. A new rule requires that every bill contain a statement by the lawmaker who sponsored it citing the specific constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation.

Missing passages

As morning stretched into afternoon, an event designed to affirm Republican campaign promises to adhere to constitutional limits on government power was tainted by an emotional debate over the flaws in the Founding Fathers' original document.

The version read aloud was missing at least seven passages that remain etched in faded ink on the Constitution kept at the National Archives. Most are eye-glazing: procedures for electing senators, the workings of the electoral college.

But two, in particular, reflect a painful reality: The nation's founding document condoned slavery.

One, the "three-fifths compromise," counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of divvying congressional districts. The second dealt with runaway slaves - if they escaped to a free state, the Constitution required that they not be freed but rather "delivered up" to their owners.

Both were negated by the 13th Amendment but necessary to ratifying the original document, according to historians.

Richard Beeman, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the three-fifths compromise, in particular, was key to getting the Constitution approved because it brought in the support of Southern states.

"Reading the original language - it may not be comfortable to do it," Beeman said. "But it's a helpful reminder that these folks were living in an age very different from ours."

To some African Americans, skipping those passages was a stinging omission that overlooked the fact that under the original Constitution they would not have had a right to vote, let alone serve in Congress.

"It's sanitizing history," said Hilary Shelton, a senior vice president at the NAACP. "You take out the parts of it that aren't as attractive. . . . We've not always been right. But the thing that makes us great is we've always been willing to stand up to the challenges before us."

The House clerk's office does not have an official version of the Constitution it relies on. In the pocket Constitutions printed by the Government Printing Office and given out to congressmen, the three-fifths compromise language is still there, although marked with brackets and an asterisk.

There was a unifying moment on the issue of slavery. While Goodlatte did not assign members to read certain passages, he did arrange for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an African American hero of the civil rights movement, to recite the 13th Amendment. His solemn reading was the emotional high point of the day, drawing a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

Part of the Constitution was omitted by accident when one reader turned two pages at once and a passage was skipped. Goodlatte returned to the House floor in midafternoon to read that section into the record. It guaranteed "to every state in this union a republican form of government."

By the time freshman Rep. Stephen Fincher (R), a preacher from Frog Jump, Tenn., concluded by reading the 27th Amendment, there were just a couple dozen lawmakers left. Half a dozen Republican congressmen were still waiting in line to read, but the Congress had run out of Constitution.

Goodlatte offered his apologies, the constitutional conservatives stuck their Constitutions back into their pockets, and the House moved on to its regular business.

And so ensued a partisan debate over the burning issue of the day, government spending, just as the Founding Fathers had intended.

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