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What do Lawmakers Swear to Defend?

Shortly after noon today, all 435 Members of the House of Representatives will raise their right hands and take the following oath:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

This constitutionally mandated oath plays two important roles. First, by requiring all Members of Congress—as well as state legislators and all executive and judicial officers—to support the Constitution, the “Oaths Clause” obliges them to observe the limits of their authority and act in accordance with the powers delegated to them by the Constitution. Second, contrary to what leftist legal reporters believe, the oath serves as a solemn reminder that the duty to uphold the Constitution is not the final responsibility of the courts but is shared by Congress and the President as co-equal branches of the United States government.

To help Members better fulfill their oath, the House will not only read the Constitution aloud on Thursday but also adopt a rule requiring that every bill cite what specific provisions of the Constitution empower Congress to enact it. Hopefully these measures will force some Members to re-familiarize themselves with our nation’s governing document, because as the last two years demonstrated, the last Congress sorely needed the lesson: 

  • In September 2009, then-Majority Whip James Clyburn (D–SC) told Fox News: “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that the federal government has anything to do with most of the stuff we do.”
  • In October 2009, a reporter asked then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA): “Madam Speaker, where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate?” Speaker Pelosi shook her head dismissing the question: “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
  • In April 2010, then-Representative Phil Hare (D–IL) responded to constituents asking about Obamacare: “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this to be honest.”
  • In August 2010, Representative Pete Stark (D–CA) told constituents asking if the Constitution limits Congress in any way: “The federal government can, yes, do most anything in this country.”

There are many reasons the American people soundly rejected the 111th Congress at the polls last November, but the flippant attitude that many in the last Congress took toward fulfilling their oath to defend the Constitution is perhaps the most troubling.

The 112th Congress has a lot of work to do. Shortly after the November elections, The Heritage Foundation released A Checklist for Congress calling on the 112th to honor the voters who elected them to Congress by (1) freezing and cutting spending, (2) repealing Obamacare, (3) stopping the Obama tax increases, (4) protecting America, and (5) getting control of government. That last item is perhaps the most significant, and it is exactly why the 112th’s return to the Constitution is so important. Our Constitution is a document of limited, enumerated powers, forming the architecture of our liberty. It is the way “We the people” control the government.

But not everyone sees it this way. The New York Times editorializes this morning: “There is a similar air of vacuous fundamentalism in requiring that every bill cite the Constitutional power given to Congress to enact it.” We’ll let President Abraham Lincoln respond:

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

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