Story Time

Members of the House try to sit still for a reading of the Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution.

It started, as all debates over the Constitution should start, with angry accusations and howling, partisan laughter. Before the members of the House of Representatives got to read the founding document, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., started asking why they wouldn’t be reading the original text. No three-fifths clause, which counted slaves in the apportionment of congressional districts; no 18th Amendment, banning the sale of alcohol. Why not?

“We have consulted with the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. “The Library of Congress actually maintains a copy of the Constitution which contains those sections of the Constitution that have been superseded by amendment.” He was the one who suggested reading the Constitution on the floor, so it was his job to explain all this. (“I guess it’s one of those cases where he who sees the need does the deed,” he said later, to reporters.)

Inslee couldn’t resist tweaking Goodlatte a little, by reminding him of one of the GOP’s campaign promises. “Would the chairman accept the premise that since we have not been able to see the exact version of the Constitution 72 hours in advance, that this is …”

Inslee was drowned out by laughter and hoots from the teeming GOP benches, full of freshmen who had queued up for the right to read from the Constitution. Some of them rubbed their eyes as the pre-drama drama went on; more of them looked into the pocket Constitutions they’d brought with them. Inslee wrapped up, saying he also wanted a “bipartisan success,” and sat down, but Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., was next at bat to explain just how important it was for the House to read the outdated, rotten parts of the Constitution.

“This is very emotional for me,” said Jackson. “This is very emotional for a number of members, given the struggle of African-Americans, given the struggle of women, given the struggle to create a more perfect document—while not perfect—a more perfect document.”

Jackson wanted Congress to hear what had been “redacted” and “deleted.” That set off Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. He bolted from his seat and grabbed a microphone, whipping it up as if it was a sword he needed to slay some demon hurtling toward him. “It is important that we use the Constitution itself,” said Gohmert. “They are not deletions. They are amendments. And in that respect, we go by the amended document, not by the deleted document. Too many have fought and died for that document to call them deletions.”

Goodlatte’s completely unexpressive face and voice suited him for this sort of baby-sitting. After Jackson and Gohmert were done, the reading began, with Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reading the Preamble and Article I, Section I, and the rest of the parties’ leadership reading next. Then they left to deal with the Congress’ actual agenda—Boehner and Cantor to a press conference, some Democrats to a Rules Committee hearing on the coming vote to repeal “ObamaCare.”

Back on the floor, the Constitution was getting read line-by-line by members who didn’t quite know which lines they would get. Only a few of them got selected in advance. The rest depended on luck and an iffy analysis of who would get what depending on where he was sitting.

Before the big read, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, was hoping he’d get to read Article I, Section 8. That’s the section that grants Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. Kucinich hoped it would draw attention to legislation he was about to introduce that would give Congress a shot at ending the war in Afghanistan. Plus, no Republican wanted to read that section. “Everybody wants to read the Second Amendment!” he said.

As it turned out, Kucinich got the section of Article II, Section III that governs the State of the Union speech: “He may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them.” It was a cruel irony for a man who wielded his own pocket Constitution on two long-shot presidential campaigns. It was less cruel that the section that Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., got was the “necessary and proper” clause, better known as the authority that Congress and courts cite for all of those bills that the Tea Party calls unconstitutional.

The crowd thinned out quickly. Very few members stuck around after they got their turn at the oversized type on the podium. If there was suspense, it came when, at long last, the amendments were divvied up. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., lucked out with the Second Amendment, which he read in full voice before leaving the room. Gohmert boomed out the Fourth Amendment, and civil liberties advocates exchanged quiet high-fives as a former judge who backed the Protect America Act and the Military Commissions Act and the Patriot Act got to point out the unconstitutionality of “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Gohmert returned to the back of the room, a row of fellow Texans behind him, to hold their breath for the next big read: the 10th Amendment. They waited through the rotation and read the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, ready for the big one. Then, tragedy: Goodlatte stepped to the podium and read the 10th himself. Gamely, Gohmert and the Texans started a round of applause, the mission more or less accomplished.

Not long after that, the 27th Amendment was read out, members of the House relearned that they can’t pass a pay raise “until an election of representatives shall have intervened,” and it was over, after an hour and 26 minutes. Only a few dozen members were left to cheer their accomplishment, and slightly fewer than that ventured outside to talk to reporters about it. Democrats failed to make the reading a lesson on the evolving Constitution, sure. But what if they could turn the hype and videos from this into a youth-indoctrinating class on the living document?

“It will encourage teachers at every level in our American school system to go over the Constitution and its amendments and discuss its evolution,” said Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J., one of very few Democrats who sat through the entire read. “The documents that are in the textbooks contain the entire unredacted versions.”

That’s what Democrats wanted. Republicans just wanted to follow through on a promise they’d made and refamiliarize members with the source of their authority. The clear implication was the one Tea Partiers made throughout 2010: The previous Congress—that would be the Democratic-controlled Congress—treated the Constitution with insufficient respect.

I asked Goodlatte if he agreed with that characterization. The previous Congress did not pay “enough attention” to the rules of the Constitution, said Goodlatte. “I wouldn’t say no attention, but not enough attention. That’s what generated lawsuits in more than 20 states against health care reform.”

Goodlatte fielded another question, about the prospects for tax reform in 2011. “I am very much an advocate of scrapping our tax code and starting over again,” he said. “The House of Representatives twice, in the 1990s, passed something called the Tax Code Elimination Act.”

A few minutes earlier, one of Goodlatte’s Democratic colleagues had read out the 16th Amendment: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” It was a morning of lessons like that: The Constitution will limit you to doing exactly what you had your mind set on doing.

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