Constitution Isn’t Worth Parchment It’s Written On

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


Constitution Isn’t Worth Parchment It’s Written On