Every member of Congress takes an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," but the newly elected 112th Congress will be the first in the nation's history to hear the text actually read aloud when the House convenes Jan. 5. The success of the tea party movement in the last election is the impetus behind the first public reading (the text has been inserted in the Congressional Record twice), and it sets the stage for the battles to be waged over the next two years. Many of the conservative newcomers think of themselves first and foremost as constitutionalists, but they will face challenges when it comes time to put their principles into action.
The incoming GOP House leadership has announced that it will adopt new rules requiring each piece of legislation to include a statement citing the specific constitutional provision authorizing Congress to enact the proposed law. The motivation is a sound one -- Congress has increasingly expanded the areas over which it has tried to exercise control in recent years -- but the requirement doesn't go far enough. Instead of making proposed laws simpler and more easily understood, it could end up adding a new layer of legalese that will provide much fodder for debate. But it will not solve one of the most intractable problems of modern legislation: Too many laws enacted now are simply incomprehensible.
Perhaps the most important lesson legislators could learn from reading the Constitution is the clarity and brevity of its language. The Founders weren't writing a document to be understood only by those with advanced degrees, but by ordinary citizens. In seven relatively short articles, the Founders managed to establish a democratic structure that has lasted more than 200 years; and we've only deemed it necessary to amend it a mere 27 times, including the Bill of Rights adopted by the first Congress. The proposed reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House will take only an estimated half-hour.
Contrast the language of the Constitution with the convoluted and arcane measures that have been enacted in the last several years. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is only the most recent and egregious bill passed by members of Congress who hadn't had time to read, much less fully understand what they were proposing. At more than 2,400 pages, the act is a monument to confusion, which will only be made worse as the agencies write the regulations that will actually govern how the law operates.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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