In a nod to the tea partiers who put the Republicans in power, GOP lawmakers took time out from their campaign to change the way government works to read the document upon which the government was founded. Democrats went along but pointedly questioned the Republicans' insistence on omitting sections that show how the Constitution has changed over time — such as one that classified a slave as three-fifths of a person.
Approved in 1787 and in operation since 1789, the Constitution has long been a subject of both reverence and wrangling. This was the first time it had been read in its entirety on the House floor, a gesture to the tea party activists who contend it has been ignored as Washington has stretched the limits of federal power.
It took an hour and a half for 135 lawmakers from both parties to go through the text. Leading off was new Speaker John Boehner, who recited the "We the People" preamble. He was followed by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who read Section One of Article I that gives legislative powers to Congress. [Read more about Speaker Boehner.]
The recital, coming on the second day of the new session of Congress that thrust Republicans into power in the House, was conducted with calm respect, except for one brief outbreak from a protester in the visitors' gallery.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., read the section of the Constitution that set out the eligibility requirements for the presidency. As Pallone read the words "No person, except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States ..." a woman yelled out "except Obama, except Obama!" The presiding officer asked that she be ejected, and she was. Police later said Theresa Cao, 48, of New York, was charged with unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress.
So-called "birthers" claim President Barack Obama is ineligible for his office, contending there's no proof he was born in the United States. Some suggest he was actually born in Kenya, his father's home country. The Obama campaign provided 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.
Before the reading started, Democrats made their own, more subdued protest, asking why Republicans chose to omit sections, including those pertaining to slavery, that were later amended. In particular, they asked about the Article I, Section 2 clause that classified slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of congressional apportionment and taxation.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., asked why those elements of American history were being left out, "given the struggle of African-Americans, given the struggle of women."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who organized the reading, said he and others had worked closely with the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service in coming up with the most accurate presentation of the Constitution. He noted to Jackson, son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, that another pioneer of the civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., had been asked to read the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery.
The reading also skipped the Eighteenth Amendment that was ratified in 1919 to institute prohibition of alcohol. That amendment was overturned in 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment.
Lawmakers lined up to take their turn at the podium, with Goodlatte generally alternating speakers between the two parties. Some got to read from profound sections that describe how the new American government was to be set up and what were the rights of its citizens. Others got more prosaic sections regarding the oversight of forts and dockyards or the ban on office holders receiving gifts from foreign princes.
The reading of one of the clauses most familiar to Americans, the Second Amendment provision on the right to bear arms, fell 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.