Open to interpretation

OPEN TO INTERPRETATION…. For their first bit of pandering to a confused party base, conservative Republicans will kick off the 112th Congress by reading the Constitution out loud. There’s nothing especially wrong this, of course, but it’s a rather meaningless stunt.

But wait, there’s more. After reading the document aloud, Republicans will then force House members to include a statement from bills’ sponsors “outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such legislation.”

Ezra Klein asks a good question: “What’s the evidence that this will make legislation more, rather than less, constitutional, for whatever your definition of the Constitution is?”

My friends on the right don’t like to hear this, but the Constitution is not a clear document. Written more than 200 years ago, when America had 13 states and very different problems, it rarely speaks directly to the questions we ask it. […]

In reality, the tea party — like most everyone else — is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution. When the constitutional disclaimers at the bottom of bills suit them, they’ll respect them. When they don’t — as we’ve seen in the case of the individual mandate [as part of the Affordable Care Act] — they won’t.

Quite right. The rhetoric about constitutional fealty from the right of late has taken on a certain childish quality — the founding document supports their preferred policy goals, because they say so. It’s the basis for this legislative push — prove your legislation is constitutional, by including a statement saying it’s constitutional.

This is terribly silly. If constitutional law were easy and straightforward, watching the Supreme Court would be exceedingly dull — the justices would hear a case, read the document, and issue one 9-0 ruling after another.

But that’s not the case. Interpreting 18th-century text, applying it to 21st-century law, and considering how and whether to consider framers’ intent, context, and forethought is inherently tricky. The far-right Republican Party and its activists are convinced that they know what is and isn’t constitutional now — even on policies where they believed the exact opposite up until extremely recently — but their rhetoric is painfully shallow.

As Ezra added, “To presume that people writing what they think the Constitution means — or, in some cases, want to think it means — at the bottom of every bill will change how they legislate doesn’t demonstrate a reverence for the document. It demonstrates a disengagement with it as anything more than a symbol of what you and your ideological allies believe.”

To reiterate a point from the other day, I’d add that all of this is part of a larger, misguided push intended to show that conservatives are the Constitution’s true champions.

But there’s a problem with this: it’s crazy. We are, after all, talking about a House Republican caucus with leaders who support allowing states to overturn federal laws they don’t like.

In recent years, congressional Republicans haven’t just endorsed bizarre legal concepts; they’ve advocated constitutional concepts that were discredited generations ago.

Worse, they have ambitious plans to shuffle the constitutional deck more to their liking. During the campaign, we heard from a variety of bizarre candidates, many of whom won, who talked about scrapping the 17th Amendment, repealing the 16th Amendment, getting rid of at least one part of the 14th Amendment, “restoring” the “original” 13th Amendment, and proposing dozens of new amendments.

Similarly, these same officials intend to radically transform the country as we currently know it, identifying bedrocks of society, and declaring them not just wrong, but literally unconstitutional.

For these guys to somehow claim they’ve cornered the market on constitutional fealty is ridiculous, and arguably, backwards. Stunts and legislative gimmicks won’t change this.