The plan of House Republicans to read the Constitution aloud on January 6, the second day of the 112th Congress, has provoked jeering from the liberal media. Yet in the midst of the jeers came a revealing comment from Washington Post columnist and blogger Ezra Klein in an appearance on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown:
The issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago, and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.
During the interview with Nora O’Donnell, Klein clarified the comment somewhat by confessing his cynicism: “It seems to me that these legal battles almost always break down along partisan lines and have very little to do with any sort of enduring understanding of the document.”
Whether Klein’s chief concern is the age of the Constitution or the inevitability of conflicting claims made about its interpretation, he appears to have given up on a shared and “enduring understanding” that would guide the work of government.
Thus, Klein misses completely the central purpose of this exercise: a symbolic reminder that our nation is founded on a specific set of first principles designed to limit government and protect individual liberty.
Republicans, however, hope to move beyond the symbolic gesture by changing the House rules so that each bill introduced must cite its constitutional authority.
The Democrats who accuse House Republicans of grandstanding have only themselves to blame: They ignored altogether the constitutional questions raised about the health-care legislation passed by the last Congress.
U.S. district court judge Henry Hudson, responding to a suit brought by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, recently ruled the new health care law unconstitutional. Hudson found the legislation represented an “unchecked expansion” of congressional power. He explained that Congress does not have the authority, even under its power to regulate interstate commerce, to force a citizen to purchase private insurance coverage. The judge wrote:
At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance — or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage — it’s about an individual’s right to choose to participate.
Twenty other states have similar constitutional challenges pending, making it a certainty that what President Obama considers the greatest accomplishment of his administration will end up being adjudicated by the Supreme Court.
When I first commented on the Virginia decision, I noted that no official response had been released by the USCCB. That remains the case. But with the likelihood that the Obama administration’s version of universal health care will be dismantled either by the Supreme Court, the Congress, or both, the USCCB should be looking for other ways of reaching the same goal.
Perhaps this effort could begin with paying closer attention to the reading of the Constitution on January 6. Catholics, after all, should understand how institutions are rooted in first principles.
While the bishops objected vigorously to the presence of abortion funding in the legislation, they seem untroubled by the question of its general constitutionality, one that comports closely with the principle of subsidiarity as articulated in Catholic social teaching.
Why so much of the public policy advocated by the USCCB in the past 30 years seems oblivious to subsidiarity has been the topic of much speculation. Rev. Donald Boesch, writing for the Acton Institute, suggests it’s due to a basic misunderstanding. In my 2008 book Onward Christian Soldiers, I traced it to the habit of the conference documents to portray “structures of sin” in social rather than individual terms.
Commentators on the Catholic culture wars focus on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality while completely overlooking the deep divisions over subsidiarity and the role of government in seeking the common good.
But now that a state court has found that the principle of individual liberty is violated by the health-care legislation, the questions of subsidiarity and individual liberty again come to the fore. As this case, and perhaps similar cases, moves toward the Supreme Court, the USCCB will no longer be able to duck questions about expanding the power of the federal government.
It’s a good moment in our nation’s history for all of us to take a fresh look at our founding documents. And while we are at it, Catholics can lay them alongside the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and note how a limited government with a separation of powers, as well as a respect for individual liberty and free enterprise, is not antithetical to what is found there.