The Constitution frequently gets lip service in Congress, but House Republicans next year will make sure it gets a lot more than that - the new rules the incoming majority party proposed this week call for a full reading of the country's founding document on the floor of the House on Jan. 6.
The goal, backers said, is to underscore the limited-government rules the Founders imposed on Congress - and to try to bring some of those principles back into everyday legislating.
"It stems from the debate that we've had for the last two years about things like the exercise of authority in a whole host of different areas by the EPA, we've had this debate in relation to the health care bill, the cap-and-trade legislation," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, who proposed the reading. "This Congress has been very aggressive in expanding the power of the federal government, and there's been a big backlash to that."
Setting aside time at the beginning of the congressional session for the reading is just one of the changes to House rules that Republicans say are designed to open up the legislative process. They say the new rules also will try to bring some restraints to lawmaking after decades in which both Republican and Democratic leaders whittled away opportunities for real legislative give-and-take.
The biggest changes would make it easier to cut spending and harder to create entitlement programs, while imposing restrictions that could keep leaders from jamming massive bills onto the House floor before lawmakers have had a chance to digest them.
"To begin to restore trust with the American people, Republicans have pledged to operate Congress differently: with real transparency, greater accountability and a renewed focus on the Constitution," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who led the GOP's transition team. "The sweeping reforms offered in this package make clear we intend to keep that promise."
The chief criticism from Democrats has been the GOP's decision to exempt some tax cuts from the pay-as-you-go rule, which requires new spending to be offset by corresponding budget cuts. Republicans want to exempt tax cuts of the George W. Bush era and alterations to the alternative minimum tax.
"Their proposal leads us down the same path of fiscal negligence that the GOP took the nation down when [Republicans] got rid of pay-go in 2002," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat. "We know how that story ends: ballooning deficits and an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression."
In the Senate, where Democrats will retain a majority by a much smaller margin, returning Democrats are pondering how to rein in repeated Republican filibusters. All returning Senate Democrats have signed a letter, first reported by National Journal, asking Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to consider taking action to change the chamber's operating rules.
The letter sets the stage for another round of discussions on whether to curtail the practice, though it's unclear how much room there is for major changes, since Republicans are likely to be united against anything that would constrain their rights as the minority party.
Liberal legal scholars on Thursday praised the movement to curtail filibusters.
The House rules changes, meanwhile, have won praise from open-government advocates, who say lawmakers and the public now have better access to legislation and committee proceedings and give them a chance to weigh in on the drafting and voting on the bills.
One key change would require bill sponsors to add statements to the congressional record citing the specific constitutional authority for the actions they are proposing.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is on the defensive over the new health care law. A federal district judge in Virginia ruled this month that the general welfare and commerce clauses do not give the federal government the authority to require individuals to purchase health coverage, under pain of a financial penalty.
As least as a discussion point, the Constitution has proved to be the "comeback kid" of the past two years.
For example, the word "unconstitutional" was used 408 times in congressional debates during the 111th Congress, according to a search of the Congressional Record. That was up from 283 in the 110th Congress and is the most since the immediate aftermath of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
Even before that, the presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, seemed to tap a nerve with voters looking for more discussion about the founding document, the core of the blossoming "tea party" movements.
"If it was up to me, they could spend the whole congressional session reading the Constitution and nothing else, and they wouldn't do as much damage as the last Congress did," said Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party in Roanoke, Va., which is in Mr. Goodlatte's district.
He said the key test for lawmakers such as Mr. Goodlatte is whether they treat the constitutional reading as "window dressing" or whether it sparks the kinds of discussions that could lead to a major re-evaluation of the role of the federal government.
"If they follow through on it, it'll create some very difficult conversations, because what they'll end up doing is finding a lot of things already in place are unconstitutional," Mr. Tarbutton said.
Mr. Goodlatte credited Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican, with coming up with the idea of a public reading of the Constitution. Mr. Cuccinelli brought suit against the federal health care law and won the judge's ruling that part of the law is unconstitutional.
Mr. Goodlatte said it's too early to tell exactly how the reading will go, though he expects many members to take part.
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