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Reading of Constitution in Congress opening shot of Republican/Tea Party attempt to roll back history

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington on Thursday, the Republican Party caused to be read in the House the Constitution of the United States of America.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH-8): “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


JAY: Here’s what Representative Goodlatte from West Virginia said about why they’re doing this: “One of the resounding themes I have heard from my constituents is that Congress should adhere to the Constitution and the finite list of powers it granted to the federal government. . . . This historic and symbolic reading is long overdue and shows that the new majority in the House truly is dedicated to our Constitution and the principles for which it stands.” Now joining us to talk about the Constitution and the principles for which it stands is Tom Ferguson. Tom is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He’s–also teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Thanks for joining us, Tom.


JAY: So, first of all, what’s your take? Why are they reading the Constitution?

FERGUSON: Well, frankly, I think they’re doing it largely for pure symbolism. It’s not the first written constitution in world history, but it was one of the early ones, and it’s got a lot of good features in it. And anything that contains the Bill of Rights–how can you dislike that? There’s of course only one problem: the Bill of Rights wasn’t supposed to be in there. That came only as part of the compromise that got the document through. And this is just to say, in other words, that there’s a very strong element of, if you like, plain old bias in that document in favor of the rich. These folks were very suspicious of democracy. It is true they were also fearful of, you know, monarchical tyranny. They were trying to prevent a president from becoming a dictator and things like that. But that stuff about the separation of powers or the Electoral College, which has caused no end of trouble, you know, which was a device to get the selection of the presidents completely out of the hands of the population–this is not a document that is designed by Democrats for Democrats.

JAY: If you read the Constitution–which you can do in about 10 minutes, you can read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It might take 10 or 15 minutes to read the whole thing. This is not a long document. And clearly, you know, since it’s the late 1700s, it’s been a point of battle to interpret these principles. I mean, anyone that buys a house, the contract to buy the house or even to rent an apartment has more words in the normal lease agreement than the Constitution has. So it was never meant to be such a specific thing to deal with all possible circumstances.

FERGUSON: That’s right. And you can make this point in a number of ways. The most compelling way, I think, is to just sort of look past all the legal stuff for a second and just focus on a very simple point. The Constitution basically hands all the power relating to money in the United States to Congress. That’s fine if you’re issuing paper currency with pictures of George Washington. Real money in America, it’s bank demand deposits, it’s entries in the banks. Now, Citigroup has, in some fundamental sense, more influence on the money supply than the Fed, than the Congress of the United States does. The plain fact is is that this stuff evolves, hugely, and trying to sort of focus on, you know, money in the sense of [inaudible] currency or something like that is–it’s going to lead you fairly far astray. And one of the oddities–.

JAY: But one thing the Tea Party’s trying to do is they–and the Republican leadership claim they’re going to go along with this–is everything that gets passed, particularly about money, but not only, they’re going to ask someone from the House to try to justify it under the Constitution. Now, this has been an enormous debate, what’s justifiable under the Constitution, and there’s been a particular fight over the Commerce Clause, which says this: “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” There’s been a tremendous fight: to what extent does the federal government have to regulate not just commerce–but over the last 100, 150 years there’s been tremendous breadth given to that by the Supreme Court. So talk a bit about this fight over the Commerce Clause, ’cause that’s probably what’s going to be coming up again in the next few weeks.

FERGUSON: The Commerce Clause is about the power of the federal government to regulate things like, well, commerce and exactly what commerce is in the states. And so it basically has to do with the division of labor between the federal government and states. Up to the New Deal, the Supreme Court typically interpreted the Commerce Clause very narrowly, so that, you know, something like Securities Act or the Wagner Act was going to have big trouble [inaudible] staying constitutional after [inaudible] In the mid and late ’30s, no doubt under the impact of a lot of political pressure, and especially–as was said at the time, the Supreme Court follows election returns; you know, thanks to Roosevelt and the New Deal, they changed. Now, Roosevelt, you know, did it–partly forced the change on them by threatening the so-called court-packing plan, but that failed. But the message came through. Moreover, a huge chunk of the population was clearly no longer going to stand for folks just sort of in effect citing very old docs in very old ways to sort of deal with problems that had to be dealt with. And now under the Roberts Court you get more and more conservative jurists pushing, you know, the–back the–in effect, the old-time religion on the Commerce Clause, that is to say, to just shrink the federal authority here. The bottom line on this: this is a hugely political effort. This is finally all about politics and economics, and it is the effort of conservatives to roll back the New Deal. That’s the real object of all this talk about the Constitution. And these folks would like to leave the population right about where they were in, say, 1925, with no Social Security, effectively no labor rights, minimum-wage laws gutted, and you just sit there and talk free market.

JAY: If you take a strict, fundamentalist reading of the Constitution as at least a Tea Party version or variation of that, there’d be no place for a federal minimum wage, ’cause they’re saying the federal government doesn’t have a place in this kind of regulation of states’ rights in commerce. It’s not necessarily interstate. For example, if a local restaurant hires a local person, they would argue, what’s that got to do with interstate activity? So that shouldn’t be regulated by the federal government. Except that’s a battle that was fought and won during the New Deal, that the federal government does have a right to do these things, including desegregating restaurants and other sorts of things. But is that–how do you think that’s going to play itself out now if they’re trying to get us back to a pre-New Deal interpretation of the Constitution?

FERGUSON: There are a lot of folks that would like to go back to laissez-faire. If you have, essentially, disorganized individuals confronting what is really a corporate state–you know, big business, big banks sitting together with the state government, with the federal government–and taking only a very selective reading of those powers, you know, and somehow they always find the constitutional power to do TARP, bank bailouts, you know, they’re not going to stop; there’ll be just lots more of that stuff coming. But if you just tell the rest of the population, do laissez-faire, they’re going to be ground into powder. Now, in fact, when you look, a good chunk of the population, I think, is waking up to this. It was interesting to me: despite the massive press campaign on behalf of the commission on the deficit, they rolled out with proposals to greatly weaken Social Security and many other programs that the population really needs to survive now, and, you know, they were immediately rejected in the public opinion polls. I was quite struck by this Vanity Fair60 Minutes poll just released the other day. It showed that 61 percent of the population would like to close the deficit, you know, not by cutting anything at all but by raising taxes on the rich. I may be wrong, but I think [inaudible] situation where the–sort of hiding behind the symbolism of the Constitution is actually going to play that well. Folks catch on. You remember what Samuel Johnson said: patriotism’s the last refuge of a scoundrel. Yeah, reading the Constitution is often the last refuge of scoundrels.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Tom.


JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.