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FIRST-PERSON: Congress should read the Constitution more, not less

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“I’m tired of reading the Constitution and all the silly things we’ve done for the last 13 weeks,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said on Thursday, March 31. “When are we going to see anything having to do with job creation?” McDermott’s comments came during a floor session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

McDermott’s dig was aimed at the public reading of the U.S. Constitution by 135 members of the House of Representatives on Jan. 6. Participation was bipartisan and marked the first time in history the entire Constitution had been read aloud during a congressional session.

The public reading of the Constitution by House members, according to McDermott, amounted to one of many “silly things” the House has engaged in recent months. Some have agreed with him, asserting the exercise was nothing more than political theater and a waste of time.

The man responsible for the public reading of America’s defining document, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), begs to differ with McDermott and others critical of the proceeding. “This is a very symbolic showing to the American people,” Goodlatte said in January and reported by FoxNews on its website.

Goodlatte added, “And it’s a powerful message to members of Congress. We are a nation of laws, not of men.”

I agree with Goodlatte, so much so that I wonder why Congress did not long ago incorporate the public reading of the Constitution into the opening sessions of both the House and the Senate.

Members of Congress take an oath swearing they will support and defend the Constitution. An annual public reading of the document would highlight for everyone — lawmakers and citizens alike — the ideals that make America unique in the world.

Though I would agree the public reading of the Constitution in the House of Senate would be symbolic, symbols carry meaning and have a place in our lives both public and private.

Symbols are a representation and a reminder of a significant and meaningful reality.

The flag of the United States is a symbolic reminder of America’s history and unity. Most married people wear wedding rings. The bands, whether simple or elaborate, are symbolic and represent a life-long commitment to another person.

The cross is a symbol that reminds Christians everywhere that the salvation they possess comes at a price — the death of Jesus Christ. It represents the greatest gift ever offered mankind.

Yes, reading the Constitution at an opening session of the House or Senate is symbolic but that does not mean it is insignificant. It serves to remind all Americans that the freedoms we enjoy are anchored in the Constitution.

For those who say the public reading of the Constitution is a waste, it should be pointed out that, historically, Congress has made the squandering of time an art form.

Each year the Senate and the House spend precious time introducing and discussing ridiculous resolutions simply meant to congratulate or recognize individuals and/or groups.

One such example is House Resolution 117, introduced in 2007, which sought to “honor the contributions of Barbaro to the Commonwealths of Kentucky and Pennsylvania and to the America’s horseracing industry.”

Barbaro was a horse that won the 2006 Kentucky Derby, but shattered his leg two weeks later in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. The injury ended the equine’s racing career and eventually led to him being euthanized.

Honoring a horse is viewed as time well spent but reading the Constitution is silly?

America’s defining document takes an average reader about half an hour to read it. The public reading in January took 90 minutes only because 135 people took turns reading it.

Since the Declaration of Independence only takes about 10 minutes to read, why not include it in an annual public reading and review by Congress as well?

Each year, prior to a professional sports season, teams of athletes take time out for training. For several weeks, men who have been playing a sport for years, invest time reviewing the basics — the fundamentals — of their sport.

If professional athletes take the time to review the basics of their sport as a team, shouldn’t our lawmakers take the time to review together the foundation of our republic?

Congress reading the Constitution publicly would also emphasize its significance with citizens. It is one reason Goodlatte introduced the idea. “We hope this will inspire many more Americans to read the Constitution,” he said before the reading in January.
According to a 2008 Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey (ISI), Americans are woefully ignorant concerning the subject of U.S. civics. ISI conducted a survey in that consisted of 33 basic civics questions. Seventy-one percent of Americans failed the test. The overall average score was 49 percent. Fewer than half could name all three branches of government which, according to ISI, is “a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system.”

The public reading of the Constitution by U.S. lawmakers in an opening session of Congress is not silly, but is a positive exercise and needed like never before. George Washington would likely agree. “The Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon,” America’s first president declared.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs