WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers took turns reading the Constitution on the House floor Thursday, a nod to tea partiers who put Republicans in power. Even the nation’s founding text got caught in political tussling: Democrats questioned omitting amended sections that reflect how the document has changed over time, such as one that classified slaves as three-fifths of a person.
Republicans, celebrating their second day as the majority power, saw the event as an affirmation of their campaign promise to enforce constitutional limits on the powers of the federal government. Democrats viewed it a little differently.
Some 135 lawmakers from both parties, beginning with new Speaker John Boehner, took turns in reading short sections of the document that has defined the national government since 1789. Republicans in charge of the chamber rattled it off with missionary zeal, as if in a school civics class. Democrats pitched in, but with seemingly less ardor.
The solemnity of the occasion was interrupted once by a woman who shouted “except Obama, except Obama” to the venerable document’s words on a U.S. citizen’s eligibility to be president.
Just as Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., was reading “no person, except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States” is eligible for the presidency, a woman in the visitor’s gallery yelled out, suggesting that it did not apply to President Barack Obama.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who was presiding over the House, banged the gavel and halted the proceedings, warning that such action from members of the public was a violation of House rules. The woman was quickly removed by Capitol police.
So-called “birthers” claim Obama is ineligible to be president because they say there’s no proof he was born in the United States, with many of the skeptics questioning whether he was actually born in Kenya — his father’s home country.
The Obama campaign issued a certificate of live birth in 2008, an official document from Hawaii showing the president’s birth date, city and name, along with his parents’ names and races.
Republicans and their tea party allies, who campaigned during the past election on the need for Washington to stop flouting limits on the powers of the federal government as defined by the Constitution, said the reading of the Constitution gave proof to their dedication to the nation’s original principles. Democrats viewed the proceedings with more suspicion.
Before the reading began, Democrats questioned the GOP decision not to read sections of the 222-year-old governing document that were later amended, such as the Article I, Section 2 clause that classified slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of congressional apportionment and taxation.
“It’s a consequence of who we are,” Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, said in reference to the three-fifth’s clause and its deletion from the reading.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash, while saying the reading was “special for all of us,” asked whether it was “not intended to create some statement of congressional intent.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who organized the reading, noted that Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a pioneer of the civil rights movement, has been asked to read the Thirteenth Amendment that abolishes slavery. He said he hoped the event would “inspire many more Americans to read the Constitution.”
The recital began with Boehner, reading the “We the People” preamble. Then Boehner’s predecessor Nancy Pelosi recited the first paragraph of Article I that describes the powers of the legislative branch.
They were followed, more or less alternating between parties, with lawmakers repeating momentous clauses on the rights and responsibilities of the three branches of governments and more prosaic sections regarding the oversight of forts and dockyards and the ban on office holders receiving gifts from foreign princes.
The entire reading of the seven articles and 27 amendments of the Constitution took about an hour and a half. Members volunteered on a first-come-first-serve with the reading of the Second Amendment clause on the right to bear arms going to freshman Republican Frank Guinta of New Hampshire.
For the first hour of the recital the Republican side of the chamber was full, while far fewer Democrats occupied the other side. After an hour, the number of Republican listeners also declined.