Every member of Congress takes an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," but the newly elected 112th Congress will be the first in the nation's history to hear the text actually read aloud when the House convenes Jan. 5. The success of the tea party movement in the last election is the impetus behind the first public reading (the text has been inserted in the Congressional Record twice), and it sets the stage for the battles to be waged over the next two years. Many of the conservative newcomers think of themselves first and foremost as constitutionalists, but they will face challenges when it comes time to put their principles into action.
The incoming GOP House leadership has announced that it will adopt new rules requiring each piece of legislation to include a statement citing the specific constitutional provision authorizing Congress to enact the proposed law. The motivation is a sound one — Congress has increasingly expanded the areas over which it has tried to exercise control in recent years — but the requirement doesn't go far enough. Instead of making proposed laws simpler and more easily understood, it could end up adding a new layer of legalese that will provide much fodder for debate. But it will not solve one of the most intractable problems of modern legislation: Too many laws enacted now are simply incomprehensible.
Perhaps the most important lesson legislators could learn from reading the Constitution is the clarity and brevity of its language. The Founders weren't writing a document to be understood only by those with advanced degrees, but by ordinary citizens. In seven relatively short articles, the Founders managed to establish a democratic structure that has lasted more than 200 years; and we've only deemed it necessary to amend it a mere 27 times, including the Bill of Rights adopted by the first Congress. The proposed reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House will take only an estimated half-hour.
Contrast the language of the Constitution with the convoluted and arcane measures that have been enacted in the last several years. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is only the most recent and egregious bill passed by members of Congress who hadn't had time to read, much less fully understand what they were proposing. At more than 2,400 pages, the act is a monument to confusion, which will only be made worse as the agencies write the regulations that will actually govern how the law operates.
If the new Congress really wanted to do something radical — and necessary — it would be to enact limits on the length of proposed bills and require that they be written in plain English. Ironically, government dictates to others that they must provide guidance in understandable language. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, requires that companies disclose information to the public written in short sentences, using no jargon and employing active voice. If legislators can't explain what they want to do in 100 pages or less, they probably shouldn't be doing it. Again, the health care act tells us much about what is wrong with the process. The drafters of the legislation sought to micromanage an entire industry, with rules affecting every aspect of health care spelled out in excruciating detail.
The most important laws on our books provide simple guidance, not play-by-play scenarios of what is or is not permitted. We abolished slavery and granted former slaves the right to vote in 100 words. We guaranteed equal protection of the laws and recognized the citizenship of all persons born or naturalized in the United States in barely 80. We guaranteed women the right to vote in fewer than 40 words.
By all means, the 112th Congress should act only when the Constitution grants it the powers to do so. But let's hope that even when it has the power to act, it will do so clearly and succinctly. If we want our laws to be observed, let's make sure we can understand them first.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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