Constitutional Issues

January 7th, 2011 by Editor B

I just got an e-mail from Steve Scalise with the subject line “Carrying out the will of the American people.” In this message he says:

On Thursday, we started what should become a new tradition by reading the Constitution aloud on the Floor of the House of Representatives. This marks the first time in the history of the United States that the complete Constitution has been read on the House Floor. I was honored to participate and hope this will be the first step towards getting our country refocused on the principles spelled out in this historic document.

(Emphasis added.)

Yet, as I learned via Cousin Pat yesterday, they didn’t read the “complete Constitution.” They left out some parts, basically the parts that are no longer functional. This includes such trivial matters as the original date for the first annual meeting of Congress, as well as some not-so-trivial stuff like the Three-Fifths Compromise.

One can argue about whether that amounts to revisionism. (I’m inclined to think our historic custom of slavery is not something to gloss over, ever.) That’s not my point. What seems inarguable, however, is that the “complete Constitution” was not read on Thursday. Am I wrong to think this matters? Am I quibbling over a trivial detail?

I’m a little gunshy these days over criticizing local politicos. Mr. Scalise, please don’t take my comment the wrong way. I just couldn’t resist pointing out this factual error. I think I understand why you did it. After all, what you sent reads much better than the alternative.

This marks the first time in the history of the United States that this much of the Constitution has been read on the House Floor, but we still didn’t read the whole thing.

The truth is so much less glamorous.

Footnotes: They also skipped a part of the Constitution because — no lie — two pages stuck together, but they came back later in the day and fixed that omission. When they got to the requirement that the President must be a natural born citizen, a woman named Teresa Cao was hauled off and arrested for shouting “Except Obama! Help us Jesus!” And to top it all off, I’m also seeing reports that a couple new Representatives violated the Constitution by voting without being sworn in. Just another trivial detail, I guess.

16 Responses to “Constitutional Issues”

  1. Kent Says:

    Feel free to leave this post off, Bart, to avoid a political discourse arising from your observation. You pass no judgment in your post, only making an observation. I understand fully if you prefer to not open this can of worms.

    I find myself distrusting any political movement or party that dismisses science to support its political agenda. Global warming and evolution are only two particularly blatant examples. A party that dismisses highly established science to support its position will certainly color any event, according to need, to further its agenda, and cannot be trusted.

    Of course, all parties shape the discourse to their advantage, and all policies should be viewed critically. But science is structured toward uncovering quackery as well as truth, and rewards those generously who uncover the errors of others. If scientists can harbor a sustained political agenda, science cannot. Should we be surprised that a party that has *institutionalized* ignorance would hide portions of the constitution while claiming otherwise?

    This particular act of political showmanship is not very troubling in the larger scale. It is, nonetheless, emblematic.

  2. David Says:

    Ironically, John McCain, born in Panama, was not a natural-born citizen. Rather, he became a naturalized citizen early in life.

  3. Brooks Says:

    Wasn’t slavery forever ago? Why anyone would want to hear about it now is beyond me. What a gloomy Gus you are!

    The Constitution is a little like the Bible. It’s all perfect and fantastic, but you gotta focus on the parts you like, and never mind the rest.

  4. Courrèges Says:

    Kent,

    The Democrats have the failings that you project onto the GOP. There have been countless exaggerated and unscientific claims about global warming from Democrats trying to push a political agenda, and let’s not forget the unsubstantiated claims from some quarters about the dangers of genetically-modified foods. Also, I’m sure you remember how Lawrence Summers was publicly skewered for suggesting that biological differences between men and women may partially explain why women are underrepresented in the maths and sciences. The attitude that Summers was wrong elevated ideology over science; science has shown differences between men’s and women’s brains and there is still debate as to whether this may impact aptitudes generally.

    As for evolution, there are divisions on that within the GOP, but in any event much of the debate over that for the past 150 years has concerned the efforts of some to use the theory of evolution to advance secular ideologies (resulting in some pretty horrible stuff, like Eugenics). You can’t just gloss over that. I believe in evolution, but I don’t particularly like everything that’s been done with it and can understand why it spurs debate.

    The truth is that both Parties often use science selectively, which is what we should expect. In politics, you’re necessarily dealing with overarching social and moral considerations and each side wants to use hard data to support its views. Sometimes that data helps, sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it’s muddled to where both sides have their own data and it’s unclear whose is correct. To tar one side as exhibiting “institutional ignorance” is itself, well, ignorant.

  5. Kent Says:

    @Brooks: There are two concerns here you may be overlooking.

    1. Intent: Scalise uses the word “complete” to emphasize his intent. Portions of the constitution had certainly been read before. One must use language with care in political discourse, or one’s integrity gets questioned.

    2. interpretation: Do we view the constitution as a living document, or as the static but profound vision of the founding fathers, to be read and interpreted literally. One of the principles of the Tea Party movement is that the constitution should be viewed in the latter way, and that many acts of the present administration are unconstitutional as a result. Many of our conservative supreme court judges argue constitutional issues on the basis of the original intent of the founders. Extreme views, to which only a small number of the Tea Party ascribe, include, for instance, that the original constitution did not protect the rights of women when it used male pronouns. Should there be an air force when the constitution provides only for a Navy and an Army? Among liberal thinkers one more commonly finds the view that the document was written loosely precisely because the writers had the foresight to see how times would change, and the constitution should be interpreted according to the needs and nature of an era.

    The decision to read the constitution arose from pressure from the Tea Party movement, and their claims that several recent administration decisions are unconstitutional. That merits a reading consistent with the literalist interpretation of the constitution. It’s inconvenient, if you have that view, to include references to slavery. But not doing so seems dishonest, and inconsistent.

  6. Mike Licht Says:

    David wrote: “John McCain, born in Panama, was not a natural-born citizen.”

    He was born in the Panama Canal Zone, U.S. territory, to two U.S. citizens. Either of those circumstances would make him a natural-born citizen.

  7. Kent Says:

    Courrèges quote:

    There have been countless exaggerated and unscientific claims about global warming from Democrats trying to push a political agenda.

    A party is not responsible for the acts of individuals. There is uniform consistency among the scientific community about global warning. Efforts to deny this usually take the form of quoting a single or small handful of scientists, usually with limited credentials. The so-called climate-gate news is an ideal example. The press picked up on this. But as the story unfolded, and it was determined they had not fudged data, that story remained largely unmentioned.

    Of course, nothing would have made these scientists happier than to find convincing evidence that global warming was not man-made. It would have catapulted them to science stardom. I strongly expect they would have welcomed changing any political opinions they had in return for being correct on the issue, and getting academic fame (with all the attendant grants) as well. No such luck. The current evidence is convincing.

    The Summers incident is certainly an interesting and valid one for you to mention. And the incident received a great deal of dispute within the science and math community. Scientists struggle from a lack of qualified women in mathematics, and many exert great effort to encourage women in math. In my own department, women make up only about 1/3 of the majors, and far too few of the faculty. A great deal of the problem arises from bias experienced early in childhood development, from elementary school teachers, for instance, discouraging women from studying math. Social trends tend to perpetuate. Research to determine these issues is valued if properly conducted. But one must be responsible in public discourse. It’s not clear Summers was responsible.

    As for eugenics, one does not decide to leave evolution out of science teaching, or indoctrinate students on false conclusions, or to teach non-scientific alternatives to evolution in science classes because evil people have seen how to use science for evil. These evil deeds themselves arose from ignorance, and ignorance will not help solve the problem.

    Given your claim, please offer me one clear example where the modern democratic party has denied established science to further a political agenda. I know of none.

    There may be many good reasons to support some of the republican agenda. Nonetheless, the republican party has institutionalized ignorance as part of their dogma, and done so whenever science has interfered with their purpose. That concerns me, and breeds distrust. There’s a great deal of historical precedence for such behavior, none of which looks flattering to the modern eye.

    As stated earlier, scientists can harbor a sustained political agenda. Science cannot.

    I’m using too much space in this discussion. Please feel free to rebut with a final analysis. I’ve said too much.

  8. Courrèges Says:

    Kent:

    ~~~~~~
    A party is not responsible for the acts of individuals.
    ~~~~~~

    This is a tad hypocritical. You say that a “party” isn’t responsible for the acts of individuals, and then disparage the entire Republican Party by holding it responsible for the views of some individual party members. You can’t have it both ways.

    ~~~~~~
    There is uniform consistency among the scientific community about global warning.
    ~~~~~~

    First of all, scientific opinion isn’t entirely uniform, particularly with respect to the primary cause. Secondly, there is broad disagreement regarding the degree and ongoing effects of global warming. Many Democrats have helped discredit global warming as a phenomenon by exaggerating its effects and attributing every weather pattern to global warming on the basic of speculation and scant scientific evidence (like those who said Katrina was caused by global warming – completely unfounded). Denying that any warming is occurring is fringe view, yes, but hardly shared by all Republicans. On the other hand, the constant predictions of catastrophic crop failures and eminent rising sea levels have proven false in the past.

    ~~~~~~
    A great deal of the problem arises from bias experienced early in childhood development, from elementary school teachers, for instance, discouraging women from studying math. Social trends tend to perpetuate. Research to determine these issues is valued if properly conducted. But one must be responsible in public discourse. It’s not clear Summers was responsible.
    ~~~~~~

    It’s absolutely clear that Summers was responsible. There is nothing wrong with discussing the possibility of biological influences when it has been scientifically proven that biological differences exist between male and female brains. It would be stupid and irresponsible to ignore the possibility, and it’s absurd and anti-scientific to shout anybody down who even mentions it.

    Also, where does that leave science? If the president of Harvard can’t discuss the issue, how can scientists? The academic left has allowed normative principles to dictate the terms of a scientific debate.

    ~~~~~
    Given your claim, please offer me one clear example where the modern democratic party has denied established science to further a political agenda. I know of none.
    ~~~~~

    I mentioned a few examples and you did not refute them. The Democratic Party has exaggerated the effects of global warming, contradicting mainstream models, has often claimed safety issues with GM foods that have no scientific basis, and has pressured scientists to deny the possibility that biological difference between men and women may explain differing aptitudes, when the science clearly admits that possibility. This does not bespeak a party of “science.”

    I know that you’re wrapped up in the notion of the Democratic Party being the party of science, but except for global warming (which Democrats are equally guilty of distorting) and evolution (a subject where many Republicans disagree and one that has a complex background) you haven’t cited any real examples of Republicans denying science, and you’re just dancing around issues where Democrats have ignored or twisted science for ideological reasons.

    ~~~~~~
    As stated earlier, scientists can harbor a sustained political agenda. Science cannot.
    ~~~~~~

    And if that agenda is common throughout scientists and impacts the research being done, how would you tell the difference? You’re dealing with many issues that have multiple variables and often can’t be worked down to irrefutable conclusions. If the people are biased then so is the “science.” I have hope that truth will ultimately come from the endeavor, but that’s less true in certain politically-charged areas than it is in others.

  9. Courrèges Says:

    Kent,

    I’ve also found some other examples in this old post by John Adler (he leads with GM foods, which I mentioned above):

    “One of the best examples of the politicization of science by the “left” — and one of the few that Mooney acknowledges — is the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis, as the National Academy of Sciences has stated many times.

    Another example would be claims by environmentalist groups that pesticide residues on foods pose a significant cancer risk, a claim which the NAS has also rejected. A third would be seeking endangered species listings for the purpose of halting development. A fourth would be efforts to claim asthma incidence (as opposed to asthma attacks) are related to outdoor air pollution, when there is no data to support such a claim. A fifth would be the EPA’s second-hand smoke study, which a federal court found was driven to reach a predetermined result. A sixth would be claims that the “precautionary principle” is a “science-based” approach to risk, when it acutally reflects a normative policy judgment about how to weigh and evaluate risks. A seventh would be the compounded conservatisms that are embedded into many agency risk assessments, such as those conducted for the federal Superfund program. An eighth would be molding “ecosystem management” to satisfy non-scientific normative preferences about how land should be managed.”

    http://volokh.com/posts/1169766556.shtml

    Suffice to say that there are plenty of cases of Democrats and liberals ignoring or making up science when it suits their goals. As I’ve said, this is true on both sides, so your claim of “institutionalized ignorance” on the GOP side is unfounded.

  10. Brooks Says:

    @Kent

    I fear my stab at sarcasm fell flat. My apologies. As a gay man, I’m actually at a rolling boil about Tea Parties, Bibles, literalist interpretations, and a lot of other things.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my last comment. I’m with you.

  11. Brenda Helverson Says:

    Reading the Constitution is merely a starting point. To understand the Constitution as it is today, we must read the many Court cases that have interpreted the Constitution since its adoption. These cases include Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, State Supreme Court, and an occasional District Court opinion. The US Supreme Court will often decline jurisdiction over a case, making the lower Court decision the effective law of the land.

    To make matters worse, decisions that overturn established cases always refer to the previous decision and often to a dissenting opinion, so you must read those prior cases to understand the final outcome. To understand the Bank of the United States controversy, you must read ALL of the Bank of the United States cases. To understand Brown v. Board of Education, you must read the cases that established the Separate But Equal doctrine. One case was decided on a split of 5-4, but on one particular point of law the vote was 4-5 and the dissent became the precedent, but only on that point of law. Try finding that one on your own.

    Law students spend an entire year studying the case law underlying the Constitution and it is assumed (often wrongly) that you are familiar with the Constitution before taking the class. After taking Con Law from a Professor who is a noted Constitutional scholar, I realized that there were plenty of ambiguities and unanswered questions surrounding the United States Constitution.

  12. Kent Says:

    The problem with saying one will allow another the last word, and not respond further, is recognizing one’s own limitations to withhold response. I’m guilty, and a little ashamed. I hope you can forgive me. I withhold a point by point response

    I am bothered by the number of statments you write that attack me personally. I don’t think my own comments have done so, and I wish to apologize if they have. If you wish to respond further, and leave off personal attacks, I will keep that promise this time, and give you the well-deserved last response. You write well, and respond intelligently.

    It’s an interesting question, what constitutes the institutional beliefs of a party, versus the perceptions of those not of that party. From my perspective, outside the GOP, reading a variety of conservative and liberal news sources and blogs, the prevailing opinion of the republican party (indeed, their platform, however disguised) is that the teaching of evolution should not be required in science classes, or if required, it should be taught with equal status with intelligent design. Perhaps I am mistaken on this, and my own views distort my perceptions.

    The GOP position on global warming is, perhaps, less clear. If the majority of republican congressman and senators, as well as recent presidential candidates, take the view that global warming may even be a scientific hoax, then perhaps your assessment is correct nonetheless, and I am assigning responsibility to the party for the beliefs of individuals. Some republicans certainly think more responsibly on these issues, including you, I suspect, and I may underestimate how prevalent are science founded viewpoints among GOP party members.

    Certainly, the degree of man’s responsibility for global warming remains in some debate. That man’s contribution is substantial is not under any serious debate in the climate science community.

    I suppose I may underestimate the issues you mention of democratic distortion of science. I know of no democratic congressman or senator who believes that the scientific community intentionally distorts facts and conclusions to push political agenda. Certainly many individuals have exaggerated or distorted science to their purpose. You may be correct, and my perception of the parties one-sided. But these types of issues you mention do not strike me as “institutionalized” within the party. They are addressed, rather, within the comment below from my original post.
    **
    Of course, all parties shape the discourse to their advantage, and all policies should be viewed critically.
    ***
    You write:

    And if that agenda is common throughout scientists and impacts the research being done, how would you tell the difference? You’re dealing with many issues that have multiple variables and often can’t be worked down to irrefutable conclusions. If the people are biased then so is the “science.” I have hope that truth will ultimately come from the endeavor, but that’s less true in certain politically-charged areas than it is in others.

    Because science does not conduct itself from the opinions of individuals. One tells the difference through experiment, collecting data, peer review, pressures for independence of thought, extensive training, etc. Science cannot sustain bias because the scientific method does not reward sustained bias. As stated within my original post:

    Science is structured toward uncovering quackery as well as truth, and rewards those generously who uncover the errors of others.

    My last response on this particular thread, with great appreciation for your contributions! I look forward to reading your thoughts and ideas, and giving them further consideration – with my further thoughts retained for me alone.

  13. David Says:

    @Mike Licht: That would be news to the INS who issued McCain his naturalized citizenship.

  14. Courrèges Says:

    Kent,

    ~~~~~~
    I am bothered by the number of statments you write that attack me personally.
    ~~~~~~

    If I’m not mistaken, none of my comments actually attacked you personally. Attacking a person’s ideas is not the same as attacking the person. However, to the extent my language was intemperate and created that impression, I do apologize for that.

    As for the rest, I think we have an understanding on this. Republicans do believe differently on these issues, as do Democrats, and the opinions of certain individuals contradict scientific consensus. Although scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, it should be challenged with evidence, not empty populist rhetoric. People’s impressions of the general party line on these issues may vary.

    On the other hand, I do have a minor quibble with this:

    ~~~~~~
    Because science does not conduct itself from the opinions of individuals. One tells the difference through experiment, collecting data, peer review, pressures for independence of thought, extensive training, etc. Science cannot sustain bias because the scientific method does not reward sustained bias.
    ~~~~~~

    This may be true over the very long term, but any method that depends on individuals can lend itself to widespread bias. Saying that “science itself” isn’t responsible is like saying that “communism itself” wasn’t responsible for the atrocities of Stalin and Mao. In a purely theoretical sense it may be true, but we don’t live in theories — we live in the real world where bias flourishes. The scientific community is no more immune to bias than any other.

    Just look at the scientific method itself — to a large degree it relies on reproducing results and peer review. The recognition of these depends to some degree on the intellectual honesty of the scientific community at large.

  15. Kent Says:

    No refutation of ideas, as promised. Last words on issues are yours. Regarding personal attack:

    “If I’m not mistaken, none of my comments actually attacked you personally.”

    You are mistaken. I quote some rhetoric below, which were personal. I’m not thin-skinned. I understand. And I appreciate your input and thoughts on the issues.

    “To tar one side as exhibiting “institutional ignorance” is itself, well, ignorant.”

    “This is a tad hypocritical.”

    “I know that you’re wrapped up in the notion”

  16. Courrèges Says:

    Kent,

    I didn’t really want to get into this, but I do think I need the opportunity to explain:

    Saying that the ideas you are putting out are “hypocritical” or “ignorant” is not the same as saying “Kent is a hypocrite” or “Kent is an ignoramus.” Likewise, although I consider myself a Republican, I didn’t take your “institutional ignorance” comment as implying that I’m ignorant personally, although I know many people would take it that way. I attack ideas tenaciously, but they’re only ideas.

    As for you being “wrapped up in the notion,” that’s just saying you cling to a certain view. That’s not an insult, but an observation about what you’ve conveyed here. As I said, to the extent my language was impolite I apologize, but I really don’t think anything I said qualifies as a personal attack.

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