The Essential Constitution

January 5, 2011

Editors: For release noon Jan. 4 and thereafter (675 words); column is tied to Jan. 6 event in Congress. Note date reference in graph 6

Naysayers have dismissed the Republican plan to read the Constitution aloud at the start of the 112th Congress as “cosmetic,” a “media event” and “meaningless political theater.” Similar objections have been raised to a new House rule requiring every piece of legislation to include a statement from its sponsor citing the constitutional authority to pass such a law.

As a teacher of U.S. History, I’d like to see both of these Tea Party-inspired ideas become an automatic part of the lawmaking process. If only the U.S. Senate would join the House of Representatives in a bipartisan statement that, yes, the Constitution not only matters but is the lens through which all public policy is judged.

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land,” the Supremacy Clause proclaims. Sadly we are a nation of ignoramuses when it comes to our Constitution.

In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute quizzed 2,500 Americans on their knowledge of U.S. history and government. We failed. The average score was 49 percent. College educators posted a marginally better 55 percent. Most alarming, the average score of politicians was 44 percent, worse than people selected at random.

For example, 79 percent of those who had held elected office did not know the Bill of Rights expressly forbids the government from establishing a religion. Thirty-three percent said the power of declaring war belongs to the president. It belongs to the Senate. Forty-three percent didn’t know what the Electoral College does.

The reading of the Constitution will occur Thursday, one day after the swearing in of a new Republican majority in the House, some of whom were elected by Tea Party enthusiasts who made adherence to the Constitution a centerpiece of their 2010 platform.

The Tea Party hopes a constitutional authority requirement will make Congress think twice before passing laws that encroach on state authority or individual rights, health care reform being the most obvious example. The goal is legislative restraint, yet the most liberal of Democrats will be able to cite constitutional authority in the form of the necessary and proper and general welfare clauses, which give Congress flexibility to do what it deems necessary for the nation.

Consider the debate over creating a national bank during George Washington’s first term. Alexander Hamilton, who felt a bank was both necessary and proper, persuaded President Washington of its merits, despite adamant objections of Thomas Jefferson who felt the Constitution in no way allowed such a thing.

Far from being purely symbolic, reading the Constitution aloud is a substantive act that will impel those who listen to consider the limits placed on their use of power.

The Framers would surely approve of almost anything that requires deference to the Constitution. One example – also criticized at the time as symbol over substance – was a 2005 spending bill rider that requires “each educational institution that receives federal funds” to hold an educational program annually on or about Sept. 17 to mark the anniversary of Constitution’s signing. Critics slammed it as micromanaging of schools, but it’s proven to be a great hook to get teachers and students talking about the origins and design of our government.

In a similar vein, the We the People curriculum sponsored by the Center for Civic Education and funded mostly by Congress has proven an effective way to teach K-12 students constitutional history. We the People students score 36 percent higher on average than college students on political knowledge tests. I teach this curriculum and can attest to its impact on young people. Despite the program’s non-partisan approach, its funding has become a matter of controversy in every recent budget debate.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Jefferson would surely agree that reading the Constitution aloud, requiring lawmakers to cite constitutional authority for their actions, making schools celebrate Constitution Day and funding a constitutional history curriculum are small yet necessary and proper ways to preserve U.S. liberty.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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