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Posted at 1:44 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Huck Finning the Constitution

By Ezra Klein

So rather than read the Constitution straight through, the House GOP actually read the Constitution-as-amended straight through. The idea being, I guess, that if people heard that taxes and congressional representation were originally "determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons," people would get, well, confused. I rather doubt that you'll see a Matt Drudge headline screaming "GOP SANITIZES CONSTITUTION!" however.

As Adam Serwer writes, there's some worrying sentiments lurking behind the impulse to Huck Finn the Constitution. The document, in addition to governing our present, serves as the link to our past -- including our mistakes. The amendments are our effort, over more than 200 years, to build a better and more just nation. Wiping that work out of the text, pretending it was perfected from the beginning rather than improved over the years, denies an important thread in our history. In this country, we amend the Constitution. We don't edit it.

The desire to edit the Constitution seems, to me, to be connected to the desire to own it, and use it, for specific political purposes. Rep. Steve King, for instance, joked that he was going to add a helpful aside when he read the Constitution's section on the Commerce Clause: "Democrats: Do not interpret this to think you can do anything you want to do, it’s a very limited authority.” Another way of making the same point is, "Republicans: Interpret this to mean that social policies you dislike are not just bad policies, but unconstitutional." There is not a lot of scholarly support behind the tendency to look at the Constitution and see this instead.

But there are good political reasons motivating it: If the Constitution is both unerring and obviously on the side of you and your policies, well, that's a powerful ally indeed. And that's a view that minority parties tend to find convenient, as even a presidential election can't override the Constitution. But when you admit that it's a more checkered document that has required both changes and reinterpretations as American history has moved forward, that leaves you in more difficult territory. As Dahlia Lithwick writes, "No matter how many times you read the document on the House floor, cite it in your bill, or how many copies you can stuff into your breast pocket without looking fat, the Constitution is always going to raise more questions than it answers and confound more readers than it comforts. And that isn't because any one American is too stupid to understand the Constitution. It's because the Constitution wasn't written to reflect the views of any one American."

That view is comfortable enough in most circumstances: The genius of the Constitution lies both in its specificity and in its vagueness. It's an effort to both set some boundaries around the American project and create a process capable of allowing the arguments that would define the country's future to go forward in a peaceful and constructive fashion. But it's not so comfortable if what you want out of the document is for it to end the argument on your terms.

Related: The Washington Post's interactive Constitution, with notes.

By Ezra Klein  | January 6, 2011; 1:44 PM ET
 
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Comments

to me, this blog is going steadily downhill the more ezra comments on the constitution. it's pretty sad stuff.

oh, and any lawyer would of course read the latest version of a governing document...(that's the whole purpose of amendments after all..e.g., should we discuss direct taxes and apportionment whenever we want to raise money? of course not. likewise, you would never inform company managers of covenants under a credit agreement that have been superceded through amendments. it's not like Huck Finn had an amendment process. just silliness here).

ezra's whole consitutional outlook increasingly seems purely partisan, far apart from the "wonkishness" that attracted me here...blah.

Posted by: stantheman21 | January 6, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Why am I not surprised the GOP decided that the House would read the Cliff Notes version of the Constitution.

Don't want to get those TeaGOP Party folks out there too confused I guess.

Posted by: vintagejulie | January 6, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse

They didn't sanitize the Constitution--they ERASED parts of it.

To my mind, this is more disrespectful than using the Constitution as toilet paper!

I don't think people are getting what a big deal this is. The Constitution isn't changed like regular law, where someone says "strike through section X and replace with Y." That has NEVER happened. EVER. (Closest is the 21st Amendment, which repealed but did not erase, the 18th Amendment.)

Yes, parts of the Constitution have been superceded. And frankly, whether or not one part of the Constitution has been superceded by another is, in fact, a core element of many Constitutional debates! But the fact is that even the most hubristic Congress has never dared erase ONE WORD of our Constitution. Until now. And they did it Unconstitutionally!

It's appalling on many levels. First, it takes a document which is coherent and makes it incoherent. It makes us look like freaks. Second, it suggests that fundamentally, the Constitution has always been as it is--which is untrue. Both the spectacle and its political implications are bad: lunatic Americans like to amend the Constitution to say what it said all along!

But more importantly, it absolutely violates the document. Just because everyone agrees that the 14th Amendment supercedes the 3/5 clause, it doesn't mean we can erase it! It's important to know what used to be there so we can understand the meaning of these Amendments, as we argue about how far they should go and which laws they should apply to! This is freaking BASIC! This is why the Constitution is different from all other laws!

I'm just appalled that Republicans call themselves the Party that will uphold the Constitution, yet they think it's present the American people with a marked-up FRAUDSTITUTION!

It's not the Constitution they read today. Call that document anything you like, but you absolutely, positively, CANNOT call it the Constitution of the United States.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 6, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Currently the story on the Constitution reading is the most popular political news article at Fox news.

It might be just another flag-pin empty gesture, but it definitely resonated with the GOP base.

Sad.

@Chris_Gaun
chrisgaun@gmail.com

Posted by: chrisgaun | January 6, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

stantheman21, come on, dude. There's no real purpose for reading the Constitution aloud on the House floor to begin with. If you're going to symbolically read a document, then actually read the document. Don't skip over the parts that you don't like or are uncomfortable with. And Ezra's right that one of the best features of the Constitution is that it is not immutable. We have changed it as we have changed, but where we've come from is important to remember.

Posted by: MosBen | January 6, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a problem with them reading the currently operative version. If you are teaching a history or civics class, obviously go through the unedited version, but for the legislature the operative sections of the constitution are what matter.

Curious if they read the 21st, the 18th and 21st, or neither the 18th nor the 21st amendment.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 6, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

"any lawyer would of course read the latest version of a governing document."

They absolutely would. And the latest version of the Constitution is the FULL version of the Constitution, the one with all its original text PLUS 27 ratified Amendments. Things have been added, but NOTHING has been erased.

Yeah, that makes it tricker to use than a typical contract. But, um, tough noogies for you. That's what the document legally is. I think it's a pain that the Catholics kept the Old Testament as well as the New one, but golly gee they did! And you can't give me a New Testament and call it the "whole Catholic Bible," because it is not, although the presence of the Old Testament certainly DOES make it harder to explain why we don't keep kosher anymore! But we govern ourselves according to the documents we have, not according to the documents we wish we had!

Why is this so hard to understand? What they read today isn't the freaking Constitution. It's some other document. But calling it the Constitution is a LIE.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 6, 2011 2:44 PM | Report abuse

eggnogfool, it's not like they're reading the Constitution because nobody knew what it said before. This is a purely symbolic guesture, not an argument about Constitutional law. If they want to put the current Constitutional law out there, they should be reading Supreme Court decisions. This is symbolically excising parts of the Constitution that they're uncomfortable with so that they're stunt comes off better.

Posted by: MosBen | January 6, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

mosben: oh i agree there is no purpose to reading it aloud on the floor...

i just think that reading the superseded text (notice it is scratched out in most legal verisons) is just a silly waste of time, and more importantly, a silly waste of a megaphone by ezra.

silliness all around.

Posted by: stantheman21 | January 6, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

So-called "Originalists" refusing to read the Original Constitution as written.

So typical of the selective pick and choose what suits us crowd.

Shame on all the major media outlets and online papers for not making this a top of the fold, top of the show LEDE and Headline:

"GOP SELECTIVELY WHITEWASHES CONSTITUTION!"

Politics as usual.

But like Mencken supposedly said:

"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. People can easily be persuaded to accept the most inferior ideas or useless products."

The republicons are the masters of pushing inferior ideas to the top of the American garbage heap which is further promulgated by the lamestream* media and its corporate owners.

The democraps are the masters of cowardice, spinelessness and slightly less corruption than the rethuglikkkans.

Shame on the dems and the White House for frittering away their political capital and for wasting the past four years to bungle lessons they should have learned long ago: IT'S STILL THE ECONOMY STUPID!!!!!!

Shame on we the people for doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Shame on us for tolerating the structural game rigging that has been pushed to an artform for the past 30+ years and calling it 'free market' holiness.

For shame. Shame on all who continue this devolution of fake democracy.

Shame on the Roberts Court for calling corporation 'persons' ~ which is an urgent reminder that ELECTIONS still matter even if Oblahblah is better suited to be a professor than a leader, he's better than the repuglicon alternative.

I'd like to see a true leader of for and by the people just for once in my lifetime.


Ezra: thanks for posting this.

*there's at least one legitimate catchphrase from Palin for which a new meaning can be attributed and thus used by progressives too! :-)

Posted by: flacan | January 6, 2011 2:50 PM | Report abuse

stantheman21, thanks for the response. I think we agree that the whole thing is a silly waste of time. My concern is that since there's no real purpose to doing this in the first place, concerns about wasting time aren't a credible justification for why they would skip over this obviously charged portion of the document. This leads me to think that it's reasonable to assume that there's some other motive here. Given that I find modern Conservatives' focus on the Constitution as some kind of perfect document troubling, I think it's important that they're skipping over the uglier parts of our past to make their little press stunt less uncomfortable.

Posted by: MosBen | January 6, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

"In this country, we amend the Constitution. We don't edit it."

Completely agree. Which is why a lot of people have problems with "editing" the Constitution through the judiciary rather than amending it through the amendment process.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 6, 2011 3:27 PM | Report abuse

What a (really)dumbshit thing to say.

Ezra wishes to try to belittle the constitution by showing earlier versions that were valid in earlier times.

Hey, times change, amendments changed it and the constitution is not what it was.

The Constitution of the United States is always "As Amended", just as all laws are.

What a wholly dumbshit thing to say, Ezra.

I'm embarrassed *FOR* you.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | January 6, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

So the Constitution is read aloud? Get over it.

So the operative elements of the Constitution are read aloud, instead of the entire historical document? Why would you WANT the whole thing read...because it would EMBARASS the readers when they got to the 3/5s part? Get over it.

Of course the real reason folks are moaning and groaning about this is that, well, they think Republicans are heartless bastards and Democrats...well Democrats fart sunshine. Get over it.

Listen up, all you bitter lefties clinging to your big government statist dreams and utopian visions of social justice/higher taxes.

The game is OVER. We've spent too much money, with as much effect as dropping $100 bills randomly from airplanes. We have a president who is completely incapable of being a leader, and who finds new and improved ways to be narcissistic, petulant, and two-faced. The former speaker of the house dares us to believe that, yes, it was the "mantra" of the Democrats to cut the deficit.

If the symbolic gesture of reading the constitution -- all of it, some of it, forwards backwards upside down -- helps us to face the pickle we are in and to do something constructive about it, it's worth it. It's even worth listening to the silliness of Ezra and his acolytes moan about it.

Posted by: karl-keller | January 6, 2011 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Did they read the part about having to read the Constitution on the House floor? I think that's in the section about singing the national anthem at ball games. Or maybe it's in the part about motorcycle helmets and cold dead hands. Wait, jnc4p and WrongfulDeath just emailed me that it's in the section on waterboarding. Thanks, guys.

Posted by: crosspalms | January 6, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Are they reading the First and Second Amendments as written?

Posted by: tl_houston | January 6, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I can't speak for the other sunshine-farting members of the Acolytes of Ezra, but I don't think Republicans are heartless bastards. On the other hand, I've spent the past two years watching them do absolutely nothing, so maybe they're just mindless bastards.

Posted by: crosspalms | January 6, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse

karl-keller - Reading the Constitution, any part of it, on the House floor will change absolutely nothing. It's all show and a complete waste of time, and the only reason to read a redacted version is because you don't like the things that have been taken out or are somehow uncomfortable with them.

And if lefties are supposed to "get over" your oh so charitable version of what we "want", then I suppose it's fair to ask conservatives to get over their white-male rich man's power fantasy. Of course, neither is a fair characterization, nor are they helpful to substantive debates, but if you think we should...

Posted by: MosBen | January 6, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

And can we please stop with this "it's the legally operative parts!" business? If we're looking for the law of the land, then we need to be reading Supreme Court precedents that are governing how the document is applied in practice. But then again, this isn't about laying out "the law". It's a media stunt, and the decision to not read the 3/5s part is similarly a decision made with the media in mind.

Posted by: MosBen | January 6, 2011 4:11 PM | Report abuse

At age 12, in Trinidad & Tobago, we studied the American system of Govt and the American Constition. I remember watching the circular diagram going from Congress to Senate the Executive Branch. It struck me then there was no way out - going round in a circle. I would agree with the reading, if each reader had to translate it into a teachable moment - stressing the importance of the constitution, explaining about the original document and the amendments, and clarifying exactly why it was necessary to read it today - at this moment in history.
As it turns out, the entire day was a wasted opportunity, enacted only for grandstanding and "because we have the power to do so". It struck me that the readers could do only that - read the constitution. Perhaps they themselves do not understand just what they are reading.
All in all - a major disappoint. Nothng to learn.

Posted by: universalmak | January 6, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Did they read aloud the part that SCOTUS abrogated in Bush v. Gore?

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | January 6, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Really, what they're doing with the constitution is what they did with Ronald Reagan:

1) Change what it is into what you personally want it to be – tell people Reagan would never raise taxes or oppose Medicare even though he did both – tell people this about the constitution:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_01/027375.php

2) Then tell people they're perfect and cannot be improved or questioned, as well as agreeing with us, so you must agree with us.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 6, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

so mos-ben, what DO you want? Do you want higher taxes on rich people (however defined?). Do you want single payer health care? You want a mandate to buy insurance -- and remind me, when you don't buy it, do you get assessed a tax, a fine, both, or neither? I actually don't know what Obama wants, as he was against the mandate before he was for it. Do you want to close Gitmo? If you do, let us know how you can do it, because the President is kinda stuck on that one. What do you think about posting bills for 72 hours so they can be read? For that or against it, or is it one of those dastardly Republican gimmicks? Please, we all really want to know...

Posted by: karl-keller | January 6, 2011 6:38 PM | Report abuse

crosspalms, Republicans COULDN'T do anything, because they had no power.

In contrast, the giant intellectuals from the Democrat party such as Grandma Nancy and the Assistant Vice Principal Harry Reid (Michele Bachman is f---g Einstein compared to those two) concocted sleazy deals so they could shove baroque Rube Goldberg health insurance legislation down the throats of the electorate as they were yelling "Stop..Stop the madness!!" --legislation with so many broken parts that the whole thing is going to come crumbling down if it doesn't find its way to its real home, the ashcan.

And then...and then...they borrowed and spent $1.4 trillion on non-shovel ready projects and bankrupt state governments, among other wonderfully effective expenditures...concluding the entire woeful enterprise by claiming, without shame, that the "mantra" of the Democrat part was deficit reduction.

And that's DOING something? Really?

Give me gridlock any day of the week.

Posted by: karl-keller | January 6, 2011 6:49 PM | Report abuse

This strikes me as a the sort of thing folks with a fundamentalist mindset would get up to...

Posted by: staticvars | January 6, 2011 11:49 PM | Report abuse

The preamble of the US Constitution explains exactly what the rest of the document is for. That is Reading Comprehension 101. Is someone really taking issue with the preamble?

Posted by: denim39 | January 7, 2011 9:09 AM | Report abuse

The Illinois Lottery drew 666 the day of Obama’s victory. Check out the Illinois State Lottery’s official website’s “Past Winning Numbers”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC_roE4SNzw

or
Click on the links in the video by Googling these exact words:

OBAMA 666 LOTTERY! ANTICHRIST BIRTH CERTIFICATE CITIZENSHIP ELIGIBILITY John Hagee

Posted by: GeirSmith | January 7, 2011 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Ezra granted reading the Constitution is a bit of a grandstand, but perhaps people understand that "amendment" means changing something. The fact of amendments means that in the past at least people thought the constitution had enough specific meaning to require a legislative process, and a super majority of both congress and state legislatures, to make changes, as opposed to 5 votes on the Supreme Court. In other words, in the past, a stricter interpretation of the constitution was the operative mode. How emphasizing, as you would, that the constitution has been changed through this process can be twisted into an argument that the Constitution can mean anything we want it to mean is beyond me.

And this is in the context of our most recent Supreme Court appointee being asked whether the Commerce Clause could be stretched to that Congress could tell people what to eat and declining to answer. Her refusal implies she thinks it could, and the idea that we are somehow protected because "that would be a stupid law" is astonishing. A fundamental purpose of the Constitution is to protect us from stupid laws.

So I ask you the same question: Is there any statutory authority that could not be justified under the Commerce Clause? Almost anything affects commerce. Speech for example dramatically affects commerce. Why therefore shouldn't Congress be able to regulate speech under the commerce clause? The list could go on.

Posted by: Brucest | January 8, 2011 5:42 AM | Report abuse

Progressives are allowed to "interperet" a "living constitution" but when Conservatives don't recognize prejudice and racism that has been ammended out they're ignoring the past.

Ha! Progressivism is falling appart.

Posted by: jdmac273 | January 10, 2011 2:35 AM | Report abuse

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