When the 112th Congress begins next January, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is expected to take over as the lead Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he has already announced that he plans to ramp up obstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees beyond even the record levels of obstruction those nominees have endured so far. Yet some truly bizarre constitutional analysis Grassley offered in a recent speech to Iowa Republicans raises grave concerns about whether he is even minimally qualified to do this new job:
“Americans want and Americans deserve the real original Constitution: A strong military, lower taxes, jobs through the private enterprise, border security, no apologizing for America. And most importantly, respect for life.”
Grassley’s call for a return to the “original Constitution” — a term that normally refers to the Constitution before it was amended — is downright terrifying if he actually means it. Slavery was permitted under the original Constitution; women and minorities were denied the right to vote; and basic human rights such as the freedom of speech or the right to choose your own faith were unprotected. Although, to be fair, it’s much more likely that Grassley simply didn’t understand what he was saying when he claimed that Americans deserve this “real original Constitution.”
For one thing, Grassley’s claim that the original Constitution requires “a strong military” would shock the people who actually wrote that Constitution. Although the framers grudgingly conceded that Congress must have the power to “to raise and support armies” and “to provide and maintain a navy,” those same framers also believed that a permanent standing army invited tyranny because it gave national leaders a force they could use to oppress the people. Today there is broad bipartisan consensus in favor of a permanent and professional military, but that consensus is at odds with much of the founding generation’s views.
Grassley’s claim that “lower taxes” are required by the “real original Constitution” also has no basis in reality. The Constitution is agnostic about how much Americans should pay in federal taxes. Although the original Constitution does place limits on how the tax burden can be distributed among residents of the various states, it gave Congress a broad “power to lay and collect taxes” without any instructions on how high those taxes could be. The Sixthteenth Amendment clarifies that Congress “shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes” at whatever levels it deems appropriate.
None of this is to say that Grassley’s preferred policies cannot be enacted if Congress deems those policies appropriate — if Grassley thinks taxes are too high, he can vote for lower taxes. But his suggestion that his preferred policies are required by the Constitution, not to mention his call for a return to the unamended document, reveals Grassley’s utter pig-ignorance of what the Constitution actually has to say. The fact that Senate Republicans selected this stunningly ignorant man to lead them on judicial and constitutional issues raises serious doubts about those Republicans’ fitness to govern.
And Grassley is hardly alone in his obtuseness. Ever since President Obama took office, countless Republicans have simply assumed that any policy that they disagree with must be unconstitutional, and any policy they agree with must be required by the Constitution. This is the animating force behind Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller’s claims that Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance are all unconstitutional. It drives Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s comical claim that belonging to the United Nations violates the Constitution. And it is the sole motivating force behind the meritless lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act.
As it turns out, when you know nothing about the Constitution it’s easy to convince yourself that it means whatever you want it to mean.