Columns / Discourse / January 26, 2011

Voice of Reason: Constitutional fetishism

One cannot listen to political discourse at any point during American history without hearing everyone’s favorite smear tactic: “(insert opponent’s name here) is destroying the Constitution!” Yet it seems that our current crop of politicians, either Tea Party-affiliated or forced to prove their constitutional credentials by the Tea Party, is moved more than ever to pledge their undying fealty and devotion to the Constitution. So many of our current debates, from health care to Obama’s birth certificate, are all based on strict constitutional interpretations that it makes me wonder: why is it that the Constitution matters so much in the first place?

Now, don’t take my question the wrong way. Clearly we need a Constitution of some sort so that there is a line in the sand that cannot be crossed. The President should not be allowed to serve for life, for example. Still, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that the Constitution remains an imperfect document, crafted over two hundred years ago and largely the result of compromises that left no one happy. We don’t have two houses in Congress because it was divinely mandated. They exist because that’s what it took to keep the Constitutional Convention from collapsing. The original Constitution contains provisions ranging from merely dated (the right to sue in front of a jury for claims exceeding $20) to the inhuman (the infamous “three-fifths” clause dealing with slavery and the census). The Constitution is a good document, certainly, but it was not handed down on Mount Sinai and we need to stop pretending that it was.

Let’s move this to the current health care debate. The mandate requiring that individuals purchase health insurance may or may not be within the federal government’s power, but what seems lost in the shuffle is whether or not it’s a good idea to begin with. It seems we should be figuring out if mandating an individual to buy health insurance is beneficial to our country or not, and then if it’s not constitutional, change the constitution so that it is. What good is it doing any of us to sacrifice our well-being to preserve the purity of a piece of paper?

The logical objection is that health insurance was surely the type of thing the Founders never intended the government to regulate. Of course they didn’t, because it didn’t exist yet. The document was crafted specifically so it could be amended and kept relevant. That is why all of Article V is devoted to how to pass a Constitutional amendment. If the government only covered what the Founders intended, we’d be missing, among other things, an Air Force, NASA, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Park Service and the Federal Reserve. Does that mean we should abolish, say, the Air Force? Of course not. The Air Force exists because it benefits us as a society to have it, not because the Founding fathers intended us to have it. No one has ever seriously argued that because Article II only mentions Armies and Navies that fighter planes are unconstitutional. Yet this same line of reasoning seems to be perfectly fine when it comes to health insurance.

When passing legislation, lawmakers should be forced to point out not what part of the Constitution covers their law (as is currently being proposed) but point out how it benefits the American people. I want my representatives to put all of us ahead of centuries old pieces of paper. Hopefully we can apply the Air Force standard to other key pieces of legislation, or if not, we should be less hesitant to propose new amendments. Most of all, I just want all of us to take several deep breaths and remember that while the Constitution is a wonderful document, it is just that: a document that exists for no greater purpose than to serve the American people.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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