The Substance Of Symbolism


Given all the crimes that have been committed on the floor of the House of Representatives — from the attempted murder of five congressmen by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1954, to various cases of bribery and extortion, to gay members of both parties soliciting underage congressional pages — you would think that a simple reading of the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t have provoked so much liberal outrage.

The recitation of the Constitution, the first order of business for the new House on January 6, clearly bothered many Democrats and their media allies. Liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) scoffed that the reading was “purely symbolic.” Many liberal diehards refused to participate.

But there was plenty of substance in the new Congress’ symbolic first act. It was, as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters, “a powerful message to Congress. We are a nation of laws, not of men.”

The New York Times blasted the reading as a “presumptuous and self-righteous act,” a “ghastly waste of time” and just one of many “empty gestures” by Republicans in a “theatrical production of unusual pomposity.” “Voters . . .,” the Times editorialized, “prefer substance to overblown theatrics.”

The media typically are fond of pomp and theatrics and symbols. The two federal election cycles before 2010 saw Democratic victories rich in both symbolism and spectacle. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi broke through the “marble ceiling” to become the nations’ first-ever female House  Speaker.

Then there was 2008 and the symbolism of America’s first black president. The powerful symbolism of those two historic victories soon faded. Obama quickly became a symbol of American weakness abroad; Pelosi, of Democratic overreach at home.

Pelosi’s four-year run wielding the gavel tied for the second-shortest Speakership of the last 50 years. About the only historic achievements San Fran Nan presided over were Congress’ historic low approval ratings, which seemed to dip weekly, bottoming out at 13 percent at the end of last year, according to Gallup.

The only symbolism conveyed by Democrats this time occurred during the official vote for House Speaker. John Boehner received the support of every House Republican, a rare feat. But the vote among Democrats represented the largest defection from a party’s Speaker nominee in nearly a century.

Nineteen moderate Democrats voted for a Democrat other than Pelosi, a symbolic act that underscored the deep divisions Pelosi and her lieutenants have created among Democrats with their stubborn pursuit of unpopular socialist policies.

The plain text of the Constitution always seems to provoke fits of indignation on the Left. And many liberals were clearly irked at news of a rules change that will require that every House bill contain a statement specifically citing the constitutional authority on which it is based.

Many of the 85 freshmen Republicans won by pledging to repeal ObamaCare. A repeal vote is set for January 12.  Full repeal is unlikely to succeed. If, as is expected, the repeal passes in the House, it would still need to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate, an unlikely result. And even if it did pass the Senate, repeal would be vetoed by President Obama.

 Still, the vote is important and not only for its symbolic value. It will force many moderate House Democrats to go on the record again as either supporting or opposing a law that has proved unpopular with a growing majority of the electorate. The vote will be followed in the month ahead by dozens of others aimed at defunding major portions of Obama’s socialist scheme.

House Republicans have started to make good on other campaign promises, too. They are in the process of reducing expenses of the House itself by imposing a 5% reduction in salaries and expenses for lawmakers’ office and committee budgets.

These cuts won’t end America’s fiscal deficit. But they will be a good first step in closing the deficit of trust between Congress and the American people.

Speaker Boehner’s efforts to increase transparency and allow more participation in crafting legislation will also help rebuild public trust and are a refreshing change from the previous Congress, whose leader promised, but failed to deliver, “the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history.”

News of the Republican plan to read the Constitution prompted loudmouth Joy Behar of “The View” to ask, “Do you think this Constitution-loving is getting out of hand?!” Which called to mind Nancy Pelosi’s reaction at a 2009 press conference when a reporter asked her to cite the constitutional justification for ObamaCare’s individual mandate.

“Are you serious?” was her exasperated response. Voters answered her question in November by electing to Congress people who will take seriously their responsibilities in “the people’s house.” The new Congress commenced, as law decrees, with each newly elected congressman swearing solemnly to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . . .”

 The initial moves of the new Congress may seem to be guided more by symbolism than by substance. But symbolism matters in politics. Symbols can be powerful reminders of what the parties stand for.

 The symbolism of the past week couldn’t have been more graphic. It punctuated the 112th Congress’ historic undertaking: a recommitment to constitutional governance.



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