Incompetent Elected Officials Of the Month: Oh, Brother!

My mood after I wrote this...

As more and more observers predict that the individual mandate, a cornerstone of Obamacare, will be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, I found my mind returning to the topics that have bothered me from the beginning. Why didn’t Congress make certain that it was on sound constitutional ground when it passed the law? Did they really understand what they were passing? Is it possible that our elected officials could spend so much time and occupy so much of the nation’s attention on an issue they didn’t understand? Surely our highest elected officials entrusted with devising the laws of this great nation must understand the powers and limits that relate to their duties in the Constitution. Don’t they? Isn’t that a minimum qualification for office?

George Mason Law Professor David Bernstein has provided clues to the answers to those question, and you’re not going to like them. He writes:

Most of us know that when then-Speaker Pelosi was asked where the Constitution gives Congress the power to enact an “individual mandate,” she replied with a mocking “are you serious? Are you serious?” Here are a few more pearls of constitutional wisdom from our elected representatives.

  • Rep. Conyers cited the “Good and Welfare Clause” as the source of Congress’s authority [there is no such clause].
  • Rep. Stark responded, “the federal government can do most anything in this country.”
  • Rep. Clyburn  replied, “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says the federal government has anything to do with most of the stuff we do. How about [you] show me where in the Constitution it prohibits the federal government from doing this?”
  • Rep. Hare said “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest […] It doesn’t matter to me.” When asked, “Where in the Constitution does it give you the authority …?” He replied, “I don’t know.”
  • Sen. Akaka said he  was “not aware” of which Constitutional provision authorizes the healthcare bill.
  • Sen. Leahy added, “We have plenty of authority. Are you saying there’s no authority?”
  • Sen. Landrieu told a questioner, “I’ll leave that up to the constitutional lawyers on our staff.”

Bernstein concludes, “Something to keep in mind when someone argues that the Supreme Court should defer to the constitutional wisdom of its coequal branches.”  Yes, and it is also something to keep in mind as we contemplate the quality of legislative deliberations on other matters.

To answer one more question definitively: Is it ethical to hold such great responsibility and power, and yet to be so ignorant of the founding document that created the institution and system you serve?



9 thoughts on “Incompetent Elected Officials Of the Month: Oh, Brother!

  1. I don’t think they are all that ignorant of the Constitution. They truly believe they are above all that stuff, that their positions in government have exempted them from the rules. They actually see themselves as a “ruling class” and as such sometimes they need to get around those pesky rules so that they can do what they think is best for us.

  2. This seems to be a somewhat one-sided argument based on the examples you used. Your point may be well taken but I think ignorance and/or disregard of constitutional boundaries knows no party affiliation. My spouse has advocated for a long time that there should be a prerequisite to holding office to pass a test similar to that for citizenship.

    While you and Professor Bernstein may be totally correct your article provides little context such as the questions asked and the circumstances.

    On this point the Commerce Clause has been interpreted for decades to grant broad authority to Congress to legislate. I’m not entirely shocked that many elected officials are not experts on the ins and outs of the Commerce Clause.

    • I don’t know what you mean “one-sided.” These are Representatives and Senators whose comments are pretty unambiguously ignorant…what other side is there? The fact that ignorance knows no party affiliation: True, I’m sure, but irrelevant to the post. We are talking about those who voted for a constitutionally dubious provision either because they had a legitimate reason to think it was constitutional, because they didn’t care, because they didn’t know there was even a problem, or because they don’t know what they are doing. The responses indicate that one of the last three was the case, and that is unconscionable.

      What context is needed for, for example, Conyers’ idiotic statement, or Stark’s, or Hare’s, or any of them, really. Go ahead—tell me a context in which those comments don’t indicate either contempt for the law or ignorance of it. You’re just making excuses. Your comment about the Commerce Clause is true but also irrelevant. The issue is whether it should even be broader—that it has been broad is no argument that it should be limitless. And the fact that the ignorance is not “surprising” doesn’t make it right, tolerable or acceptable, so I don’t see what your point is there, either.

      I am surprised, for the record.

  3. Can I be clearer that none of the examples you chose are Republicans. That is what I meant by one-sided. How about some pearls of wisdom from Republicans if this is truly an ethical issue and not a partisan one?

    Since when does context not matter? I suspect that someone could take one of your statements (or anyone’s) out of context and make an issue out of it.

    How about including some examples of comparable statements by opponents of the Affordable Health Care Act on that or other issues?

  4. Jaime, don’t be so lazy. If you want to challenge Jack, look up your own “pearls of wisdom” from Republicans. Jack, you forgot the best quote of all – Nancy Pelosi’s: “You have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” And yes, I looked it up and the best commentary I could find on that one was the article in the Daily Mail. ( Although the quote was taken out of context, even the context is squishy. BTW, searching for that line, I observed that it was noted in more conservative-leaning publications and almost nothing in MSM.

  5. Jaime… here’s the deal: the ACA is the issue at hand; its constitutionality is in question, as it has been since well before it ever became law. The question is how could our Congress push through a bill with what many felt contained constitutional problems without addressing them from the front end. Jack’s point, and we know he does not need someone to speak for him, seems to be that this has flushed out a lot of people who voted for the bill, who either did not know there was a problem, or did not care. Either choice does not speak well for those who wish to be considered leaders. Maybe the reason that the Republicans are not well represented in this example is that few if any of them supported the bill… If any of the Democrats who voted for the bill actually saw the constitutional problems and voted for it anyway…. well, not much to say there either.

    Are there dopes on both sides of the aisle? You bet. But that is not today’s topic.

    Note to Jack: check out the CA legislature’s stunt of taking a “hoodie day” in solidarity…. while the state’s finances circle the bowl.

  6. From the Broadway musical, “Finian’s Rainbow”:

    SHARON: Where do I get my ideas? From the US Constitution — have you ever read it?

    BLOWHARD SENATOR: Ain’t had time to read it — too busy defendin’ it.

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