On Thursday, as part of the new House rules package, members of the United States House of Representatives will read the United States Constitution from the House floor. This is a reflection of a call from “the genius of the American people,” as Alexander Hamilton so aptly described the American people in The Federalist, that Congress not forget the guiding principles set forth in our nation’s Constitution. After all, in a republic it is the people who rule through their representatives. Even James Madison, who believed that “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire,” would be thrilled that Congress has taken the time out of bickering to remember the foundations of our country.
George Washington would be especially pleased. He stressed in his farewell address that Americans should not let divisiveness drive the country into demise. “The ultimate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissensions, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” What better way for Congress to unite than to honor the document (brought about by a providentially inspired unity of 13 wildly divergent states in 1787) that so aptly defines the handbook for governing and so brilliantly beholds our liberties?
This historic reading of the U.S. Constitution on the House floor, something that was introduced by the new House Republican leadership and has never been done before, is not just for show. These new House rules have teeth: they hold proposed legislation up to the light of the Constitution, requiring that each bill or joint resolution introduced in the 112th Congress be accompanied by a “statement citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the bill or joint resolution.”
To critics’ dismay, the relevancy of the Constitution stands as firmly today as it did 223 years ago. We see its efficacy every day in both the marvelous and the mundane aspects of governing the United States. From the Senate’s required approval of the president’s arms treaty with Russia, to Congress’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to the judiciary’s ruling that parts of the new healthcare law are unconstitutional, the Constitution is at work. Not to mention, the liberties we take for granted, such as those contained in the Bill of Rights: habeas corpus, the right to a speedy trial, the right to bear arms, the freedom to worship as we please, the freedom of speech, and the sovereignty of the states, to name only a few. Amendments such as the 13th, 19th and 26th give potent clarity to the strength and dignity of each individual. What part of these few acknowledged pieces of the Constitution would any American relinquish?
Yet, do American citizens and students even know their basic rights? Do members of Congress routinely give thought to the constitutionality of proposed legislation before introducing it? These questions validate the reading of the United States Constitution on the House floor and the new requirement for legislation to be constitutionally justified. Too many Americans, and elected officials for that matter, are sadly ignorant of the roadmap upon which we tread and on which we maintain our God-given dignities. “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people,” John Adams warned. In his farewell address, President George Washington wrote these words to citizens and his fellow statesmen, “But the Constitution, which at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory to all.” Any light that can be shed on the document that preserves our republic is vital, especially during a time in which the federal government has quietly crept past its constitutional boundaries while American society as a whole has languished in the luxury of autopilot.
The time to take the wheel is upon the American people, and there is no better way to do this than to have a keen and pertinent perspective on our country’s most vital directive. It is imperative that citizens arm themselves with knowledge and in turn give their children the lamp to light the path that proceeds in front of them. In this regard, it would be advantageous for not only Congress to read the Constitution on January 6th, but also for schools across America to take a patriot’s pause and not only watch the proceedings but read the Constitution in their classrooms. If the classrooms do not seize this great opportunity, then it is time for parents to read the Constitution to their children at home, for organizations to read it at their facilities, and for bosses to read it at their workplaces. How bold, how beautiful, how brave, how American! Americans need the courage to act upon the inner call of righteousness based on fundamental truths.
Janine Turner is the founder and co-chair of Constituting America. Cathy Gillespie is co-chair of Constituting America.