Constitutional authority

With the swearing in of new House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the newly elected Republican majority on Wednesday will take control of the House of Representatives.

The next day, they plan to do something which has never been done before. They plan to read the Constitution aloud.

They then say they will require every new bill to contain a statement by the legislator who wrote it, citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed law.

The Washington Post has called it “the Tea Party-ization of Congress.” The steps are indeed designed to convince grass-roots “tea party” constitutionalists that Washington is going back to our limited-government roots. But are they?

“I think it’s entirely cosmetic,” Kevin Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University, told the Post. But Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at Freedom Works, disagrees: “It’s a big deal. That’s a very basic starting point for all legislation — not only should we do it … but can we do it?”

The 4,543-word Constitution, including all 27 amendments, could be read aloud in just 30 minutes. But the exercise will probably last longer. Many lawmakers are scheduled to participate, with one representative reading a portion of the document before yielding the floor to another representative to continue reading and so forth.

The idea is that the question of constitutional authority will restart the debate with each new bill. Republican leaders even distributed a five-page memo to lawmakers outlining how to determine a bill’s constitutional authority, and hosted training sessions for legislative aides.

Sounds great. But those who continue to see an almost unlimited scope for federal action will, in all likelihood, simply append to the top of each bill some new boilerplate stating the Constitution gives Congress the authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” to provide for the “general Welfare.” Or, alternatively, that since everything either “moves in” or “affects” interstate commerce, anything can be regulated in any way desired under the “interstate commerce clause.”

If a solid Republican majority rises from their seats, one by one, to say, “Nice try; but you haven’t specified the clause in Article I, Section 8, ‘The Powers of Congress,’ that authorizes us to pass this law, and thus I must regretfully vote ‘No,’ ” … well, then the sun might indeed rise in the West, and the federal budget be balanced in a year.

We shall see.

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