Wash Post's Ezra Klein Laments 'Confusing' Nature of Old Constitution

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein appeared on MSNBC's Daily Rundown, Thursday, to mock the incoming Republicans for their stated fixation on the Constitution, asserting that the document is rather old and "confusing." MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell dismissed the GOP effort as "lip service" and wondered if it was a "gimmick."

After playing clips of Republicans claiming they would reject legislation that couldn't be justified constitutionally, Klein complained, "The issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done."

O'Donnell condescendingly introduced the segment by suggesting that the Constitution "has been getting a whole lot of lip service." After alerting viewers that the Republicans would open Congress by reading the document's text, she skeptically wondered, "Is this a gimmick?"

To underscore her cynicism, O'Donnell played a snippet of incoming House Speaker John Boehner confusing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, wondering how "alarming" the slip was.

Finally, Klein concluded the segment by suggesting that politicians pledging to closely follow the Constitution simply don't mean it: "...It seems to me that these legal battles almost always break down along partisan lines and have very little to do with any sort of enduring understanding of the document."

This brought a prompt reply of "no doubt" from O'Donnell.

A transcript of the December 30 segment, which aired at 9:15am EST, follows:

SENATOR JIM DEMINT: Government has a solution to almost anything, because we don't pay any attention to the Constitution.

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE NANCY PELOSI: We believe that this act was passed tonight is an all-American act honoring our founders vows to the future.

SENATOR-ELECT MIKE LEE (R-UT): I will not vote for a single piece of legislation that I can't reconcile with the text and the original understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Returning to the Constitution. That's what Republicans want to do in the new Congress. In the last year, the 223-year-old document has been getting a whole lot of lip service. So when the 112th Congress is sworn in next week, expect to hear a lot more about it, 'cause the Constitution is at center of three coming congressional battles and we love wonkery mixed up with politics. So, we're bringing our favorite wonk into the discussion to tee up some of the discussions in the weeks ahead, MSNBC contributor Ezra Wonk Klein is a staff writer for the Washington Post and joins us now. Ezra, good to see you. Thanks so much.

EZRA KLEIN: Good morning, Norah.

O'DONNELL: You heard all the different politicians talking about the Constitution. Well, this is what's going to happen. When Republicans take over next week, they're going to do something that apparently has never been done in the 221-year history of the House of Representatives. They are going to read the Constitution aloud. Is this a gimmick?

KLEIN: Yes, it's a gimmick. [Laughs] I mean, you can say two things about it. One, is that it has no binding power on anything. And two, the issue of the Constitution is not that people don't read the text and think they're following. The issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done. So, I wouldn't expect to much coming out of this.

O'DONNELL: Except that, you know, the Tea Party has sort of used this to say, you know, we've got to follow the Constitution. I mean, they're constantly talking about it is a way of suggesting that our government has run amuck. And yet, the new Speaker of the House has actually confused himself what's in the Constitution. Let's listen to John Boehner from earlier this year.

JOHN BOEHNER: This is my copy of the Constitution. And I'm going to stand here with our Founding Fathers who wrote in the preamble, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights."

O'DONNELL: Ezra, is it alarming that the Speaker of the House confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence?

KLEIN: Oh, my. I don't find it particularly alarming. Obviously, it's rather embarrassing for him. There's another part we should note, which is the new rules require every bill name its constitutional authority in the bill's text and what I want to point out about that is that bills don't normally do that now. But, the one bill that did, the health care bill. In the individual mandate section it names the constitutional authority for the mandate. It names the constitutional justification the Democrats believe they have for it. And, of course, the Republicans don't think-

O'DONNELL: And what is that justification?

KLEIN: Necessary and Proper Clause, basically the normal reading of the Commerce Clause, at least in our era, is that in a sort of a unified nation like we are the government is fairly expansive powers [sic] to make sure interstate commerce works effectively. The health care market is largely federal, people move from state to state, get care in different states. In order to make it work you need to be able to pass federal laws about it. On some level, you basically do this with Medicare, right? Medicare is a federal law that has a ton of regulatory power over the health care sector. Now, because Republicans oppose the individual mandate, despite having come up with it in the early '90s, they're attacking it on constitutional grounds because they say couldn't be in Congress. But, it's just to make the point that simply saying this is constitutional has no weight with either side. Republicans haven't said, "Oh, well, you wrote it in the bill, so never mind. We're wrong. We're sorry we doubted you. You named what you thought was your justification for it already.

O'DONNELL: Well, I think here's here's what I think is the key question. Because, one of the things facing members of Congress and this President is the budget battle that is looming. And, we have a couple numbers here, because we're facing a $1.3 trillion fiscal 2010 deficit. $100 billion in promised Republican cuts. We've got this all on the screen and $4 trillion in cuts is what was prose proposed by the deficit panel to do that by 2020. Is there anything in the Constitution that talks about a balanced budget?

KLEIN: Nothing. And It's interesting, a lot of Tea Party members talked about adding a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. And if they wanted it to be in there, they obviously would have obviously added it. Similarly, the filibuster keeps a lot of this from going through that's not in the Constitution. Again, there's a very instrumental relationship people have with the Constitution. This goes from sort of us on the ground here in politics to the Supreme Court, with Scalia, Thomas and other members that tend to be on different sides. State rights when it suits them, more federalist interpretations when it comes to things like marijuana regulation when that accords with their political beliefs. I've come to have a cynical view of jurisprudence on the Constitution, in that it seems to me that these legal battles almost always break down along partisan lines and have very little to do with any sort of enduring understanding of the document.

  O'DONNELL: No doubt. Ezra Klein with the Washington Post. Good to see you and happy New Year.

- Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.