Misulonas: The irrelevance of the Constitution

Joseph Misulonas

One of the most common type of criticisms Republicans have lobbed at President Obama is that many of his actions have been unconstitutional.

This criticism is popular because it can be used for any issue. Healthcare, gun rights, birth control, stimulus package and anything else that has been passed by Obama can be called unconstitutional.

Why can every action be deemed unconstitutional? Because the Constitution is a ridiculously vague document. It’s like the ending of “Blade Runner”: so frustratingly ambiguous that anyone can have his or her own pretentious interpretation of what it really means.

Depending on your political leanings, you can interpret any section of the Constitution to counter an argument of a political opponent. Charlton Heston said the Second Amendment gives us the right to possess as many guns as we want and the government cannot interfere with us acquiring them. I could argue the Second Amendment only gives us the right to create well-armed militias. So who’s right? We’ll never know until we re-animate the corpse of Alexander Hamilton.

The Second Amendment highlights another problem with our nation’s governing document. When the Constitution was written, the best gun technology available was a single-shot musket. That weapon held only one round at a time and required 30 seconds to reload – and there was still a 90 percent chance the shooter would miss the target. Now, we have automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns, silenced pistols and any number of dangerous weaponry that can make any person into a killing machine.

The Constitution was written during a different time. It represents the ideas and the experiences of people living in the 18th century. That’s the reason why we’ve had to amend it 27 times. This is a document written in an era when black people were only three-fifths of a person, women weren’t allowed to vote and an illegal immigrant came from Germany. Trying to use the Constitution as a basis for modern policy is like using Alexander Graham Bell’s journals as a basis for cell phone innovations.

The Constitution still holds an important symbolic role in our government today. It represents a time when a group of loyal Americans banded together and overthrew a tyrannical empire. It is the foundation of our democracy, and established stable democratic rule that has lasted more than two centuries.

Yet we have a history of ignoring the Constitution when it fits our interests.

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right for prisoners to be brought before court to determine whether the government can continue detaining them, during the Civil War. FDR put thousands of Japanese civilians into internment camps.

After 9/11, both political parties agreed to authorize wiretaps of suspected terrorism suspects without a warrant, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. If it weren’t for the Constitution, Dick Cheney probably wouldn’t have had so many heart attacks.

We selectively decide when the Constitution should be relevant. When Obama asks Jesuit hospitals to provide birth control, which violates Catholic philosophy, he is accused of violating freedom of religion. But freedom of religion is ignored when a group is denied the ability to open a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. We choose to use the Constitution when it is most convenient, and we ignore it when it is most problematic.

Invoking the Constitution doesn’t help a political argument, either. In fact, it probably hurts it.

Imagine if a moderator told the Republican candidates they couldn’t use the word “unconstitutional” in a debate. How would they criticize Obamacare? That is the answer the voters should know. Is Obama’s health care plan saving millions of lives and helping the uninsured receive affordable health insurance? Or is it a burden on small businesses? Politicians should be answering those questions for voters rather than invoking a constitutional debate that will never be resolved.

The Constitution is an important document, but that does not mean we have to invoke it every time we make policy. It is too outdated and vague to apply to every modern political debate.

On a side note, James Madison just turned over in his grave.

Joseph Misulonas is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]

All opinions expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the columnist and do not reflect the views of The Daily Northwestern. If you would like to respond to the column, you may comment below, email the columnist or submit a 300-word letter to the editor to [email protected].