What Congress Should Learn From the Constitution

The House Republicans’ decision to open today’s session of the Congress with a reading of the Constitution is one everyone should applaud.  Regardless of the Republican motives, getting people to contemplate our government’s founding document is a worthy goal and one hardly limited to conservatives, and it will turn C-SPAN for a short time into an actual example of that long-sought Holy Grail, educational TV. 

But it will also be something of a mystery show.  What is it that our representatives will think they’ve heard and how will they react?  The thinking of the Tea Party members who are steering the new House majority is especially difficult to fathom.

Many have already pointed up the irony of the Tea Party’s python-like embrace of the Constitution, a document that after all had the explicit purpose of establishing a strong central government and extinguishing powers that had inhered in the states.  Then there’s the even sadder irony of a group that tosses out divisive phrases about the “real America” waving around a document written by those whose honorable project was to form “more perfect union.” (And interestingly, one of the founders’ concerns was the ability of the U.S. to pay its debts; coyly discussing default as the Tea Partiers do when holding forth on the debt limit, was not exactly their cup of tea.) 

Indeed, Tea Party perspectives have more in common with those who have been opponents or critics of the Constitution throughout American history – the anti-Federalists who worked against its ratification; the slaveholders who sought nullification; and even the Progressive historians of the early 20th Century who saw it as the tool of powerful (economic) elites.  That said, all those groups probably had a more coherent philosophy (albeit in the case of the slaveholders without any moral standing) than the curdled populism of the Tea Party.

But my hope for today is not so grand as a wish for the Tea Party to see the fundamental contradictions in its substantive positions.  Rather, here are a few practical lessons about the mechanics of governing that I hope all Members of Congress will glean from listening to the words of the Constitution:

1) Effective governance is all about reaching sensible compromises.  The Constitution has the shape it does because of compromise.  The structure of the Congress itself was a compromise between the highly and less populated states.  The Constitution’s very existence should serve as a repudiation of the “our way or the highway” thinking that seems to inspire many of the newest House members.

2) The U.S. does not have a “winner take all” form of government.  The new Members are likely to learn very quickly how seriously the Founders believed in a balance of powers and “checks and balances.”  They believed, rightly, in a system of healthy tensions.  The Tea Party idea that any Presidential action that contradicts their thinking is Constitutionally suspect is a highly unconstitutional notion.

3) To be lasting, a legal structure needs flexibility.  It is no accident that the Constitution is built on broad clauses and open-ended ideas rather than highly specific directives.  The government in 2011 was not supposed to be identical to the government in 1789 because nothing else looks identical.  For most of U.S. history the Founding Fathers were known as the “Framers” and that’s what they did – they framed the parameters of future government and debate, they didn’t try to determine the outcome. 

4) Governing requires engaging with the technical mechanics of the law.  The Constitution is not a particularly “good read.”  With the exception of the Preamble and the First Amendment, it is largely devoid of rhetorical elegance.  It reads like, well, law.  The current suspicion of any legislation that sounds technical or runs more than a few pages is out of step with the Constitution.  Complex, technical, legal issues don’t get resolved with fancy rhetoric at comic strip length. 

Others could add to this list, but the Constitution can be seen as a manual on how to govern that is rather at odds with some of the reigning notions in Washington.     

Many in the Tea Party vaunt their religious affliliations (to some extent, another oddity in light of the Constitution).  Christians celebrate today as the Feast of the Epiphany.  In celebrating their control over Congress, there has been plenty of feasting on Capitol Hill the last few days.  An epiphany would be a welcome addition.