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House Democrats put off rite of reading Constitution to convene new Congress

January 9, 2019

Democrats haven’t expelled the Constitution from the floor of the House, but they have put off what had become a semiannual rite of having members convene a new Congress by reading the founding document on the chamber floor.

Republicans instituted the practice when they took control in 2011 amid a tea party-inspired surge of interest in getting back to the founders’ vision of government. The bipartisan reading has typically happened within a few days of a new Congress gaveling in.

Now in control themselves, Democrats plan to carve out floor time for the reading sometime during the first session of the 116th Congress though not this week.

“I love the Constitution,” said Rep. James McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Rules Committee. “It’s not a bad practice, but right now the most urgent thing is not to read the Constitution on the House floor it is to get the government open.”

GOP lawmakers, though, were disappointed in the change.

“Maybe I need to get some Republicans and make a bigger deal about the Constitution not being read right now,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, Texas Republican. “We all ought to read that together as one body and as one body of leaders for our country not Republican or Democrat.”

He acknowledged that lawmakers have a lot on their plate but said it’s still a worthwhile practice.

“Before we start launching out into governing in this 116th Congress, maybe like we’ve done every year at the beginning we invoke God’s assistance, his wisdom, his peace, and his favor on us, and then we read that mission, vision, and [values] statement so that we’re reminded that our first job is to provide for a common defense,” the congressman said.

The GOP, when it was in control, wrote the Constitution reading into the House rules, requiring it to happen early on.

Democrats’ new rules, approved last week, says the reading can still take place but at any time this year.

David Azerrad, who studies conservatism and political movements at the Heritage Foundation, said the reading has a certain level of civic value for the public, but said timing isn’t crucial.

He doubted the American public would notice Democrats’ changes.

“If you had to pick between Game of Thrones or a reading of the Constitution on the House floor who’s even watching C-SPAN?” Mr. Azerrad said.

House Democrats’ new rules do preserve a post-2010 GOP initiative that requires members to include a “constitutional authority statement” with every bill they introduce, citing specific sections of the Constitution they think grant Congress the authority to do what they’re proposing.

Mr. McGovern said it should be implied for members that they follow the Constitution when they’re introducing bills, but that he figured they might as well leave the language in their rules package for the current Congress.

“It was just one of those things ... it’s there, we don’t need it, but it’s there so it’s fine,” he said. “I didn’t give it a ton of thought, to be honest with you.”

Most lawmakers don’t give the rule itself a lot of thought, either, slapping vague or generic statements on their bills.

Mr. Azerrad said the rule is well-intentioned, but that it was inevitable that lawmakers would ultimately push it to the sidelines or find workarounds.

“This is a reminder, albeit one with no teeth in it, that they have to take their bearings from the Constitution,” he said. “To be quite honest, if they were to get rid of it it’s not like the operations of Congress or the government would be fundamentally altered.”

He said he supposes it’s good that Democrats will retain the practice, but that there would be zero political upside for them to try to tinker with it at this point.

“It hasn’t changed much, and if it were really a hindrance to big government activism, they would have scrapped it,” he said.

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