The Constitution falls under continued scrutiny at the hands of Washington’s partisan strongholds.
By Micah Hanks
These days, saying you adhere to the principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution is almost a fad among the political elite in Washington. Those seeking to portray themselves as strict protectors of our country’s founding principles willfully brandish their adherence to the document like a mighty club, smiting their enemies with rhetoric that portrays them as cowards willing to sacrifice the rights ensured to the American people. However, probing a bit deeper, what really seems to be happening is that both Democrats and Republicans claiming to be from the Constitutionalist camp are displaying more preferential attitudes, illustrating the furtherance of a sort of “convenient constitutionalism,” in which only the portions that best fit one’s political ideology–or agendas–are deemed acceptable.
For the Republicans, the recent debate has resulted in many GOP leaders circling the Fourteenth Amendment like hungry vultures, ready to pick away the elements that clearly grant the right of citizenship to all who are naturally born within our country’s borders. As debate over how to handle immigration continues to resound among the populace, the attitude among these Republicans favors amending the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment, with hope of removing the ability for immigrants to move here and, thus, have children which then become naturally-born citizens. Similarly, Democrats on the other hand, angry over the Supreme Court’s decision in January pertaining to the controversial Citizens United v. FEC case, argue that corporations should in no way have influence over elections through the influence of soft money, etc. They too, perturbed by the Roberts Court’s interpretation, have called for a constitutional amendment that will address the matter.
An Associated Press article this morning further criticized this sort of preferential attitude, as espoused by Georgia Congressman Paul Broun, noting that “it turns out there are parts of the (Constitution) he doesn’t care for—lots of them. He wants to get rid of the language about birthright citizenship, federal income taxes and direct election of senators.” Among Republicans, the article says, nearly 42 Constitutional amendments have been presented before the current Congress, whereas Democrats have proposed only 27 amendments, nearly one-third of which have been presented solely by Rep. Jesse Jackson of Illinois. Reasons among both sides range from political issues, such as the aforementioned concern over birthrights granted under the Fourteenth Amendment, to Jackson’s more liberal push for housing rights granted to all.
Writing for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, former Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr recently lamented that the Constitution has “in many respects been so decimated as to provide currently only fitful protection for the liberty we as Americans were supposed to enjoy.” Pouring over the changes that have occurred since the days of James Madison and his colleagues, Barr notes that “This once-hallowed document now affords virtually no checks on the scope, power and cost of the federal government.” What Barr illustrates is a different kind of “convenience” applied to Constitutional interpretation: for those who won’t go to the trouble of pushing for an amendment that grants provisions for a particular political goal, many in Washington now simply use varying interpretation of the document as it stands to achieve the same thing.
One of the most hotly debated instances of this in recent memory deals with the mandate in the current Health Care bill passed by Democrats earlier this year, which forces everyone to purchase insurance, or else pay a fine. The argument for being able to force individuals to purchase health care plans, according to Democrats, lies under the Commerce Clause, since large numbers of individuals deciding not to purchase coverage could potentially affect the economy on a broader scale. Republicans and Libertarians argue that this logic is clearly flawed, and accuse the Obama administration of unconstitutional measures used to require Americans to make purchases.
In spite of the partisan attitudes that filter into constitutional interpretation for the sake of convenience, there are notable exceptions, particularly among candidates in upcoming November elections. Former Congressman and Republican Presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo entered the race for Governor of Colorado on the Constitutional Party ticket earlier this year. In spite of taking a tough stance toward immigration in the past, Tancredo has openly opposed the notion of changing the Fourteenth Amendment as a means of combating illegal immigration, preferring a lawsuit that would likely take the matter to the Supreme Court instead. Recent polls suggest, however, that nearly half of all Americans questioned actually prefer a constitutional amendment, which, paired with Republican heavy-hitters like Mitch McConnell supporting the measure, places Tancredo in a tough spot.
But the path to right action, of course, isn’t always the most popular route; this is especially the case with politics. Popularity contests also have damaging potential when it comes to matters of such importance as permanent modification of the U.S. Constitution, a document penned with the intended purpose of limiting the influence of government, rather than granting it broader power. In truth, there is perhaps no better instance where restraint and reason should be applied, rather than the rash, politicized decision making we so often see on account of partisan majorities.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr.