Law of the land

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On Thursday, the Constitution of the United States in its entirety will be read aloud in the House of Representatives, courtesy of the new Republican majority. The temptation, to which we succumb, is to regard the reading as a symbolic sop to the “ tea party,” whose adherents carry around pocket-sized copies of the Constitution.

Even so, there’s no harm in a public reading of it. We only hope that those in the audience, whether tea partyers or their supporters in Congress, are willing to listen to the complete document. If they do, they’ll find some of their small-government preconceptions challenged.

One notion that might not survive is that the Constitution is the work only of the founding generation. The original document was friendly to states’ rights in many ways, but several amendments added after the Civil War dramatically altered the balance between states and the federal government. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment specifically authorizes Congress to pass laws enforcing the amendment’s guarantees of liberty, equality and due process.


Tea partyers and sympathetic representatives also should pay attention to language in Article 1 granting Congress the authority to enact “all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing its enumerated powers, including the right to regulate interstate commerce. We don’t expect the mere recitation of this language to convert opponents of healthcare reform to the idea that an individual mandate is constitutional. But they might at least recognize that the Constitution gives Congress sweeping authority over commerce — more sweeping, perhaps, than they like.

Finally, we hope ears are pricked when the reader declaims Article VI, which declares: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” It is impossible to reconcile this language with the belief, popular among some tea partyers, that America is a loose confederation of sovereign states.

Along with ordering the marathon reading of the Constitution, the Republicans will require that every piece of legislation refer to the part of the Constitution from which it derives its authority. If members pay close attention to the reading, they’ll realize that’s a pretty easy task.