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House may read "P.C. version" of Constitution again

January 4, 2013 by NCC Staff


Buried in the orders of business for the 113th Congress is another potential controversial reading of an edited version of the Constitution on the House floor.

House Resolution 5 says that Speaker John Boehner “may recognize a Member for the Reading of the Constitution on any legislative day through January 15, 2013.”

When this first happened in 2011, in the aftermath of the tea party’s win in the 2010 midterm elections, the 84-minute ceremony was preceded by bickering and followed by public criticism about the version of the Constitution read by the House.

There was a brief floor debate started by then-Representative Jessie Jackson Jr. about the proposed omission of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which is found in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution.

"It was of consequence to us," Jackson argued about the compromise in 1787 that counted slaves as three-fifths of the population for voting and taxation purposes.

Here is the exact passage Jackson referenced:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

The version obtained by Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia was the “amended” version of the Constitution. Goodlatte said he consulted with the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress on the exact text.

The amended or edited version removes passages that were superseded by constitutional amendments.

Members of the Republican and Democratic parties took part in the reading, and they accidentally skipped two other sections when they double-turned a page.

The Washington Post followed the event and found that seven significant passages were omitted from the reading, including the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition.

Other omitted passages include a requirement for free states to return escaped slaves; the election of senators by state legislatures; details on elections; and rules about presidential succession.

It’s unclear if Boehner will call on the House again to read the Constitution, but it seems likely that the reading could happen, albeit in a lower-profile session, before January 15.

There was one heckler in the 2011 session who yelled out President Barack Obama’s name when part of the Constitution was read about a “natural born citizen” becoming president.

About one-third of the House was present for the 2011 reading, and a then-little-known House member, Gabrielle Giffords, read the First Amendment.

“I wanted to be here, I think it’s important,” Giffords said. “Reflecting on the Constitution in a bipartisan way is a good way to start the year.” Just two days later, Giffords was shot at a public appearance at an Arizona supermarket.

Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House's top-ranking African-American representative, declined to take part in the 2011 reading, calling the deletion of the slavery clauses "revisionist history."

Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland also objected to using an edited version of the Constitution.

“The Constitution is the basis of our laws, but it is also a historical document whose text demonstrates the potential for growth present from the beginnings of our nation. While portions of the Constitution have been amended, those portions have not been deleted, nor have they been excised from history,” he said in a statement.

But John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights movement figure, read the 13th Amendment to a standing ovation in the House.

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