January 3 2011
Down the Rabbit Hole
The new Congress members take their seats this week to hopefully make good on their promises of the midterm elections to enable the country to move towards creating economic growth and prosperity, establishing fiscal responsibility, and restoring the constitutional boundaries to congressional action. Taking these actions would move the country forward to finally crawl out of the dip created by the financial recession and to rein in a government that has been acting without bounds.
But, don't get your hopes up too high. While we can expect the 112th Congress to be more responsive to voter interests in light of the upcoming presidential elections, this Congress like any other before it is subject to the same special interest pressures tilting policies towards the interests of well-organized minorities to the detriment of the large base of citizens. This tendency for politics to heed the demands of the politically connected and powerful is one of the reasons that America's Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution to protect the equal rights of all citizens of the United States in front of the state.
However, some political commentators are cheering at the prospect of bending the Constitution to satisfy the "needs of the times." In Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole is a metaphor for entering a period of confusion and chaos. Further adaptation of the progressive theory of the "living Constitution" would send us down that destructive path.
E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post today discusses the 112th Congress's intention to better incorporate Constitutional concerns into congressional decision-making, by reading the Constitution out loud when Congress reconvenes this Wednesday and by establishing a rule that all bills shall contain a statement citing their Constitutional authority. His take on, what he calls, the symbolism of Constitutional government leads me to worry that political convenience may distort the good intention of justifying every congressional bill under the Constitution towards adopting interpretations of Constitutional wording that are far from the original meaning. Dionne writes:
But on reflection, I offer the Republicans two cheers for their fealty to their professed ideals. We badly need a full-scale debate over what the Constitution is, means and allows - and how Americans have argued about these questions since the beginning of the republic. This provision should be the springboard for a discussion all of us should join.
From its inception, the Tea Party movement has treated the nation's great founding document not as the collection of shrewd political compromises that it is but as the equivalent of sacred scripture.
Yet as Gordon Wood, the widely admired historian of the Revolutionary era has noted, we "can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those 18th-century political leaders were not outside history. . . . They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance, and foolishness."
Obviously, past political leaders weren't perfect angelical beings descended from the skies to create peace and order on earth, the same way that current politicians are ordinary humans that respond to the same incentives as everyone else. However, the Founding Fathers recognized that fact and for that very same reason instituted a fairly air-tight Constitution to limit politicians' from ruling at their sole whim.
Dionne appears to subscribe to the theory of Constitutional interpretation that sees the document as necessarily bendable to the demands of the times. This theory of the "living" Constitution has done much damage already, and if the 112th Congress will adopt such a reading in its forthcoming bills, it would send the country even further down the rabbit hole.