WASHINGTON — When Republicans take over next week, they will do something that apparently has never been done before in the U.S. House’s 221-year history: They will read the Constitution aloud.
And then, they will require that every new bill contain a statement by the legislator who wrote it, citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed law. Call it the tea party-ization of Congress.
“It appears that the Republicans have been listening,” said Jeff Luecke, a sales supervisor and tea party organizer in Dubuque, Iowa. “We’re so far away from our founding principles that, absolutely, this is the very, very tip of the iceberg. We need to talk about and learn about the Constitution daily.”
These are two standout changes on a long list of new rules that House Republicans will institute when they assume the majority on Wednesday.
After handing out pocket Constitutions at rallies, after studying the document article by article and demanding that Washington return to its founding principles, tea party activists have something new to applaud: A pillar of their grass-roots movement will become a staple in the bureaucracy that governs Congress.
But the question being debated in legal and political circles is whether the constitutional rules are simply symbolic flourishes to satisfy an emboldened and watchful tea party base. “I think it’s entirely cosmetic,” said Western Connecticut State University history professor Kevin Gutzman, who said he is a conservative libertarian and sympathizes with the tea party.
“This is the way the establishment handles grass-roots movements,” he said. “They humor people who are not expert, or not fully cognizant. And then once they’ve humored them, and those people go away, it’s right back to business as usual. It looks like this will be business as usual — except for the half-hour, or however long it takes, to read the Constitution out loud.”
Thee Constitution reading will occur Jan. 6, one day after the swearing in of Speaker-designate John Boehner, R-Ohio. The 4,543-word document, including all 27 amendments, could be read aloud in just 30 minutes. But the exercise probably will last longer.
The moment seems designed for maximum effect. Many lawmakers will participate, with one representative reading a portion of the document before yielding the floor to another to continue reading, and so forth. Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Democratic lawmakers are welcome to participate if they wish.
“We always hear members of Congress talking about swearing an oath to represent their constituents, when in reality the only oath we take is to the Constitution,” Mr. Boehner said in a speech this fall. “We pledge ‘to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ No more, no less.”
The House Historian’s Office found no record of the Constitution ever having been read aloud on the House floor, but lawmakers twice have submitted the text into the Congressional Record.
Roswell Flower, D-N.Y., did so in 1882 and Thomas Reilly, D-Conn., in 1915, according to House Historian Matthew Wasniewski.
Yale Law School constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar said he supports the reading. “I like the Constitution,” said Mr. Amar, author of “America’s Constitution: A Biography.”
But he added: “My disagreement is when we actually read the Constitution as a whole, it doesn’t say what the tea party folks think it says.”
He argues that the Constitution charters a “very broad federal power,” and is not the narrow state’s rights document that tea party activists insist it is.
The constitutional-authority rule will restart this debate with each new bill. Every piece of legislation now will require a statement from its sponsor outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such a law.
This is such a big change to the Capitol Hill routine that GOP leaders distributed a five-page memo to lawmakers outlining how to determine a bill’s constitutional authority and hosted training sessions for legislative aides.
The rule has been a top tea party priority; it was the No. 1 recommendation in the movement’s “Contract From America.”
“It’s a big deal,” said Brendan Steinhauser, Freedom Works’ director of federal and state campaigns. “That’s a very basic starting point for all legislation — not only should we do it, can we afford to pay for it, but can we do it?”
The ongoing debate over the recent health care overhaul is rooted in questions of constitutionality. The Constitution does not explicitly allow an individual mandate for health care.
The law’s supporters say the Constitution gives Congress authority to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to provide for the “general welfare.” But foes argue that the courts have never interpreted the Constitution as guaranteeing a right to health care, and see the health care law as a legislative overreach that the nation’s Founding Fathers would condemn.
This debate over constitutionality has split largely along partisan lines, leading some legal scholars to say the new House rule might be more about playing politics than anything else.