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House reads the Constitution, line by line

Republicans in the House of Representatives flexed their new muscle by insisting on a reading of the entire Constitution. Democrats inquired whether it would be the original version of the document, which included the Three-Fifths Compromise, designed to increase the power of the slave-holding states. Birther interrupts the proceedings.

January 06, 2011|By Michael Muskal | Los Angeles Times

It would seem that if there were anything above the partisan political fray, the reading of the Constitution, the nation’s highest law, would be on that pedestal.

But apparently even that isn't above politics. Republicans in the House of Representatives flexed their new political muscle with a multiple-hour, line-by-line reading of the Constitution. It was the first time that such a reading had taken place publicly in the chamber and it fulfilled a campaign pledge pushed by the GOP’s conservative wing and the ‘ tea party” movement.

The action was designed both as political theater and a reminder to the nation’s lawmakers of what conservatives see as the nation’s founding principles that back a strict constructionist view of a limited government. It is the vision of limited government that Republicans see as one of their touchstones for the new Congress.

But the recitation of the Constitution was a chance for Democrats to score points while piously praising the historicity of the Constitution. They initially questioned whether the document would be read in full in its original language or in its amended form.

In its original form, the Constitution included sections such as the Three-Fifths Compromise, designed to increase the power of the slave-holding states by allowing slaves to be counted toward the allocation of congressmen, even though slaves were seen as property and obviously couldn’t vote. Nor could women vote in those times when all men, except slaves, were created equal.

Slavery, and its political implications, led to the Civil War, of course. But even in its time, it was so divisive that noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took the Constitution to task.  "The United States Constitution is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell" became the motto on his journal, Liberator.

Current House Democrats, such as Chicago’s Jesse Jackson Jr., questioned which version of the Constitution would be read on Thursday, arguing that the original showed how far the nation had come through amending and reinterpreting the Constitution to reflect the evolution of society.

"The new Republican majority and their redacted constitutional reading gives little deference to the long history of improving the Constitution and only seeks an interpretation of our Constitution based on the now, not the historic, broad body of law and struggle that it has taken to get there. It leaves out the need to continue to refine the Constitution so that we have a more perfect union,” he stated.

That principle, sharply at odds with the GOP’s, is part of the Democrats’ vision of government as a growing entity that should have a role in dealing with the nation’s problems.

As the reading of the amended version went on for several hours, there was at least one outburst from the gallery as a person interrupted to say Obama wasn’t born in the United States, hence was constitutionally barred from being president. No effort, including the release of his birth certificate,  by President Obama has dispelled the false rumors of his birth that continue to have traction with the so-called birther movement.

“First interruption of the reading from the Gallery. By a birther, screaming about Obama. Unintended consequences,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) tweeted from the House floor.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesmuskal

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