Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is the authority for such a mandate specified. Some have argued that its “Commerce Clause” is broad enough as to be interpreted to allow for such a measure – but that is a question for the federal courts to decide. So far, the results of the varying lawsuits challenging Obamacare and its individual mandate have been mixed but at least one federal judge – Henry Hudson – has found it is outside the Constitution’s purview.
There are those, like Congressman Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who believe that the Constitution means whatever Congress says it does, as though the words on the parchment on display in the National Archives are some kind of quaint idea that have little meaning in contemporary America. This is, of course, nonsense. The United States Constitution is an enduring embrace of liberty, one that imposes strict and clear limits on the powers of the federal government – limits that have been too often ignored over the last several years especially.
Forcing members of Congress to identify where in the Constitution the authority for what they propose to do lies is not a gimmick; it is a useful exercise in limited government that can only be a threat to those for whom the limits placed on federal powers by the Founding Fathers have no meaning.
The Founders intended for the United States to be a nation of laws, not of men – and said so, not just in the Constitution but in the debates that surrounded its adoption, in the Federalist Papers and in the ensuing effort to “secure the blessings of liberty” through the ratification of its first ten amendments, commonly known as The Bill of Rights. Had they intended for the federal government to have unlimited power to regulate our lives and the nation’s commerce they would have enumerated that power in the Constitution. They didn’t – and the decision by incoming House Speaker John Boehner to begin the upcoming session of Congress with the first ever reading of the Constitution in the well of the House is an important reminder of that essential fact.
Last September thousands of Americans gathered in public squares and backyards to hold their own readings of the Constitution, pulled together by the Internet at a website called wereadtheconstitution.org. They will do so again this year, as they will read in public the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. Looking back to the beginning is not some kind of wistful hindsight; it is a powerful reaffirmation of the democratic principles on which this nation was founded and, once reasserted, will allow its institutions to endure for another two centuries and beyond. The serious end goal here is not merely reading the Constitution, of course, but rather fidelity to it. Thursday's (today's/tomorrow's) exercise on the House floor is grounded in the hope that familiarity is at least a step in the direction of fidelity.
Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring.