More Symbolic Flourishes From the House GOP

A rule change long championed by the newly elected GOP House majority has become official.  With the backing of GOP House leaders, newly elected tea party darlings announced today that they will be implementing several new rules for the upcoming legislative session.  The two rules attracting the most attention are the following:

  1. They will read the Constitution aloud.
  2. And then they will require that every new bill contain a statement by the lawmaker who wrote it citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation.

The concept is great.  There has never been a more unifying force for the social and fiscal conservative wings of the Republican party than the constitution.  United as constitutional conservatives, the resulting tea party movement is the driving force behind the historic GOP landslide in November.  But those who applaud this rule change without reservation should reconsider that approach.

To be clear, it is a long overdue development that the constitution become the centerpiece of legislative deliberation.  If, to establish that focus, the Congress needs to read the constitution aloud, then so be it.  Perhaps such a reading will achieve its intended goal.

But then again, perhaps it will not, and therein lies the problem with this development.  A reading of the constitution, though a symbolically significant representation of public sentiment, is nothing more than a cosmetic motion to appease the GOP’s energetic base.  The tea party is a powerful movement in part because of its unifying attributes but perhaps more-so because of its insistence on holding the Congress’s feet to the fire.  That is why statements such as this one from Iowa tea party organizer Jeff Luecke are concerning:

“It appears that the Republicans have been listening,” said Jeff Luecke, a sales supervisor and tea party organizer in Dubuque, Iowa. “We’re so far away from our founding principles that, absolutely, this is the very, very tip of the iceberg. We need to talk about and learn about the Constitution daily.”

There are several problems with this analysis.  To say that “the Republicans have been listening” after this report is hardly appropriate.  The tea party called for an end to the facade of establishment government, not a continuation of cosmetic tricks designed to please a relatively uninformed public. 

To be sure, Luecke is right to say that learning and talking about the  Constitution is “the tip of the iceberg,”  but the elephant in the room is this question: does reading the constitution aloud on the House floor constitute “learning about the constitution?”  Well, the answer is no.  For one thing, the constitution will be read in a one time, 30 minute session immediately following John Boehner’s swearing in a House Speaker.  Considering that many people study the Constitution for years, how much the Congress can learn from a 30 minute reading is laughably insignificant.

However, if we can agree that learning and talking about the Constitution is integral to a responsible Congress, it hardly seems logical to be satisfied that this learning should occur after the Congress is elected.  How about mandating that all candidates running for Congress take a test on the content of the Constitution?  At least in this case, it would be easy to weigh the constitutional prowess of a candidate in order to make a judgment before that individual is handed the keys to the kingdom. 

Furthermore, it’s not like the Congress never talks about the constitution.  They take an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  When are we going to get over the concept of  “talk” and move on to action?  How much more talking do we really need to do?  If the tea party really wants the Constitution to be the focal point of the legislature (as it should be) then, at best, they should be apathetic towards this new rule, and more appropriately, they should be somewhat angry that the Congress does not seem to understand that people are tired of ridiculous acts of political posturing. 

The second rule– that Representatives be required to cite the constitutional authority of any presented bill–is equally as irrelevant for many of the same reasons that have already been mentioned.  As much as the tea party would like to think that the mandate would bring about an end to federal power-grabbing and a surge in legislation supporting state’s rights, the reality is quite to the contrary.  Very little will change.

The constitution is a broad document, and the words contained within the record are ambiguous and easily manipulated.  Already with Obamacare, we are seeing the Left invoke the dreaded “necessary and proper” clause to support the legislation’s constitutionality.  The beef that the tea party has with the Left has never been about the words of the constitution itself.  The issue has always been with the Left’s incorrect interpretation of the intention behind these words.  Conservatives believe that the intentions of the founders of this country are in line with the sentiments of the tea party, but in a battle of semantics, even the most sacred of texts can be twisted for ulterior motives.

The problems with these new rules are summed up nicely by conservative libertarian Kevin Gutzman:

“I think it’s entirely cosmetic,” said Kevin Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University who said he is a conservative libertarian and sympathizes with the tea party.

“This is the way the establishment handles grass-roots movements,” he added. “They humor people who are not expert or not fully cognizant. And then once they’ve humored them and those people go away, it’s right back to business as usual. It looks like this will be business as usual – except for the half-hour or however long it takes to read the Constitution out loud.”

Some may say that there is nothing to criticize about these new rules.  Some may say that they are merely the first step of many toward a new culture in the Congress.  But I would argue that these sentiments lack the proper perspective that the past few decades should have taught us. 

Constitutional conservatism is a movement designed to invigorate a commitment to our founding principles, but what lends the movement its true strength is its commitment to substantive action over political game-playing.  To say that this new development is a step towards substance is to be deceived by the very same tactics that have pervaded the Congress for years.  If you think these rules are commendable, substantive changes, ask yourself: what exactly do the new rules change?  The answer is: nothing. They give the appearance of accomplishing substantive results, while in reality changing absolutely nothing about the culture of the Congress.

During the November elections the tea party was dedicated to action and accountability, not games and political posturing.  Conservatives need to remain firm to these principles, and to do so involves speaking out against all forms of political gamesmanship, even those forms that are intended to make conservatives feel good about themselves.  Get over symbolic flourishes.  Leave the symbolism to the Left, and focus on what matters: substance.



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