Any C-Span viewer of recent Potomac cavortings has the evidence of his or
her eyes to know how rankly foul our school systems, public and private,
must be. Seldom has there been a more discouraging parade of illiterate,
unlearned, ill-prepared, poorly spoken ignoramuses than the men and women
members of the Congress depositing their soot on our television screens
during the impeachment debate. So many hours of coarse, repetitive,
inarticulate grunts, gargles and gwaks.
The American Congress has never had a reputation as the home of the
learned or the wise, but in the past there have been a few eloquent
speakers betraying a broader knowledge than can be found in a law library.
The current membership of the House of Representatives, however, is as
unimpressive a collection of human beings as can be found assembled
anywhere outside of Rikers Island. Few of them, to use one of their
favorite expressions, rise above the level of street thugs in their
discourse. With a congressional staff approaching 40,000 people, you would
think that at least one member of the Senate or the House would have found
somebody to write a decent speech.
Nevertheless, their trash-mouth repetitions and cliché-mongering
are worth dwelling on for a moment. “This is a government of
laws,” they proclaim with the maddening regularity of cuckoo clocks,
but anyone from the outside listening to them is driven to conclude that it
isn’t a government of laws, it is a government of lawyers. The laws
are an incomprehensible hash.
After 4,000 references to the Founders, Framers and Fathers, and
adjurations that any deviation from their perfect wisdom will send the
society crashing God knows where, it occurs to an intelligent outsider that
it might be better to think about the Constitution than worship it.
Treating it as the Shroud of Turin only traps us into mindless debate as to
what does or does not “rise to the level of blah, blah, blah.”
This Constitution before which there is so much kneeling and joss-stick
lighting is anything but the supreme political design of the ages. We act
as if the Constitution was not made to serve us but as though we were made
to serve the Constitution. In truth it is a sucky document in need of
overhaul before it does us in, and perpetual peddling of it to the populace
as the perfect political plan only makes it that much harder to change.
As has been said elsewhere, it is all but impossible to change because
the Founders, Framers and Fathers wrote it that way, not for any exalted
motive like protecting liberty, but to protect human slavery. Every day in
the House and Senate, you will hear the familiar cant about not changing
the Constitution but the insuperable barriers to amendment were in place
before the first 10 amendments were passed, and it is worth bearing in mind
that for decades thereafter the Bill of Rights was a dead letter,
unenforceable anywhere in the United States. It was window dressing and
would have remained window dressing without the passage of the 14th
To get the 14th Amendment passed, 600,000 men died in the Civil War.
Nothing short of this sacrifice was demanded by that crinkly piece of
parchment to purge it of slavery and begin to make the Bill of Rights
something like a real protection of personal liberty. This argument has to
be made repeatedly as a corrective against those who insist the only way to
run the country is Constitutional divinations conducted by legal pedants and judicial scholiasts scouring
200-year-old manuscripts written by men who, in their craziest dreams,
could not have imagined a nation such as ours. We are related to the
reality of the Founders, Framers and Fathers in the same degree and kind
that we are related biologically to Australopithecus, the little apes at
Olduvai Gorge from whom we are said to descend.
No amount of exegesis on what the Founders, Framers and Fathers may have
intended when they wrote phrases like “high crimes” is going to
accomplish anything but to further mislead ourselves. Hence, beware of
members of Congress quoting and requoting Barbara Jordan’s now
somewhat tired statement that, “My faith in the Constitution is whole,
it is complete, it is total …” Such fervent credos are
meaningless invitations to stop thinking and stop questioning imbecilic
recitations of legal and political dogmas.
Why should it be a mortal sin to contemplate changing a sclerotic
governmental system that barely works at any level? Exhibit No. 1 for this
assertion is the impossibility of campaign finance reform. Setting aside
whether or not it is desirable, look at the predicament we’re in.
Nine judges who serve for life and whose findings cannot be reviewed by
any other power on earth but themselves have decreed the Constitution is
violated if limits are put on campaign spending. At the same time, any
legislation that might be cleverly enough drawn up to snake its way around
this decree cannot pass the Senate, a legislative chamber where Montana,
with 870,000 people, gets two Senators, as does California, with 31
million. At this late date in the 20th century, the one-man, one-vote rule
obtains to only one house of the American Congress. I suppose that we
should be grateful for this much since the Constitution, as originally
written by the infallible Founders, Framers and Fathers, did not have the
direct election of Senators by the people. To get that one small change,
direct election, required more than a century of bitching, moaning and
struggle. We are living under a cryogenically rigid system without ice
It is also, unhappily, a system whose defects are often celebrated as
its greatest virtues, to wit, the separation of powers. Under this scheme,
everybody in government can blame everybody else and all of them can be
played off against each other by the 20,000-plus lobbyists plying their
trade like so many Eighth Avenue hookers in what is called Gucci Gulch, the
hallways outside the hundreds of committee rooms where Congress stumbles
through the bewildering business of writing laws whose impact and import it
can scarcely guess–in no small measure because, under the separation
of powers, it has no connection, and certainly no responsibility, for
executing the laws it passes.
Ever since Hector was a pup, suggestions have been made for ameliorating
this deficiency by such devices as making the Secretaries of the executive
branch departments nonvoting members of Congress. Like all ideas for
revamping dinosaur government, these also were asphyxiated generations ago
by the dead hand of this Constitution.
The one argument for removing the President from office has nothing to
do with perjury. If Congress were to kick out a President on the trivial
grounds it is toying with, it might trigger a series of events through
which Congress took over much of the executive branch power and began
administering the goofy laws it passes. In the nonvirtual world, of course,
removal of President Clinton would lead to nothing of the sort. It would
lead to one more mess, and we have enough of these as it is.
Starting in the 1950′s, the Supreme Court made a run at filling in
for the ever-paralyzed Congress. It didn’t work. The strict
constructionists, those Talmudic fanatics of 18th-century
constitutionalism, emitted ear-splitting bellows of protest, and it turned
out that judges under our system make even worse legislators than do
legislators. After two or three decades of trying to run vast public enterprises from the
bench and making a disgusting muck of it, the judges are in retreat.
So problems pile up and the gigantic animal in Washington rollicks in
the mud or lifts its long neck so that its dumb head can rip off more green
leaves from the shrubbery surrounding its swimming hole. Nor is the remedy
for our woes a higher class of person in Congress. What we need is a better
Follow Nicholas von Hoffman via RSS.