Reading The Constitution Might Be Important To Reading The Constitution
Yesterday, House Republicans led a reading of most of the Constitution. You see, they decided to leave out portions of it that had been amended. The ongoing rationale for the omission is that you don’t read parts of the Constitution that are superceded, because they’re no longer applicable.
But if the purpose of the reading was to remind people of the contents of our fundamental law and to symbolize Congress’ commitment to adhering to that law, then it makes no sense to read portions of document that no longer apply. The reading Jackson and others wanted would make sense only if this were a history lesson. But it was not. History lessons are for speeches by individual members, each of whom has his or her own view about which aspects of history to emphasize. What all members of Congress have in common is their oath to uphold the Constitution as it stands today.
The predominant conservative view of constitutional interpretation is based on strict textualism and original intent. The short version of this is that we look at the words in the Constitution and we look at the historical background when the words were written to determine the full meaning of the language. The problem with originalism is that it’s both incredibly lazy and remarkably fungible. It allows you to hitch a ride on whatever version of history you find most appealing and declare any competing interpretations apostate. But the core of it, at least, is that every single thing in the Constitution means something, and that it all means exactly what it says and what it meant when it was written.
Originalism and original intent, however, become incoherent when you no longer interpret the Constitution based on the words it still contains. The Three-Fifths Compromise is inoperative, but it still shows a fundamental calculation that went into the construction of the Constitution and the Union. The same thing goes for appointment of Senators by state legislatures. The 21st Amendment needs the 18th Amendment in order to be fully understood. The amendment process is not a deletion process; it’s an override process. If you’re going to tell me that the Founders’ intent is the guiding light for our country, you can’t pretend they didn’t mean part of what they said because it was changed by later acts.
The beauty of America is that we neither forget our history nor find ourselves overly bound by it. But if you contend that we are bound by the understanding of men at the end of 18th Century in all that we do, then you can’t say that a later alteration of the Constitution changes their intent. It’s a self-nullifying argument, and it makes any attempt to interpret or enforce the Constitution through that lens a complete joke.