September 16, 2005
Senator Byrd delivered the following remarks at Shepherd University
to mark the first national commemoration of Constitution and Citizenship
Day. September 17 marks the 218th anniversary of the signing of the
Constitution by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention on that
date in 1787. Senator Byrd included in federal legislation, signed into
law November 2004, a provision requiring schools and federal agencies
to set some time aside to study the Constitution. More information is
available on Senator Byrds Internet site. The speech was broadcast
live on C-SPAN.
"We are here, of course, to talk about the worlds longest
enduring national constitution. The day is most auspicious for such
a discussion, for tomorrow we mark a great anniversary the 218th
anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States
on September 17, 1787.
Not a day has passed in the history of this great republic in which
the Constitution has not been important. Not in the early days of our
nations founding, as the Constitution was drafted, debated, amended,
and finally ratified, for then it set the framework for the nation square
and true. Not during the great westward expansion, when additions to
the original 13 states were added according to the process laid out
in the Constitution, wings stretching our house from sea to shining
sea. Not during the great conflagration that was the Civil War, when
the Constitution and the Republic were put at peril from the passions
within that threatened to cleave the nation in two. Not during the mighty
struggles of the First and Second World Wars, when threats from without
strove to make over the globe in an evil image. Not during the long
twilight of the Cold War, as Communism challenged our constitutional
freedoms at every corner of the globe. And certainly not today, as religiously
inspired terrorist groups strike from wild dark places at the way of
life that our Constitution guarantees for us.
The anniversary of the signing of the Constitution is, viewed in this
light, a very important day, yet it is often not even printed on the
calendar and is only rarely observed. That is a shame. Why should the
phases of the moon, or the first day of Autumn, or Halloween, be granted
more notice in the passing days of our lives than an event which has
such impact on so many aspects of our daily occupations?
This deceptively simple document fundamentally affects how we live in
the United States. Most issues of concern on a national scale involve
it: war, treaties, international and interstate commerce, the role of
the federal and state governments in the event of national catastrophes,
discrimination, civil rights, taxes the list goes on and on.
It is written in simple English, not legalistic gobbledygook. There
is no reason why all Americans cannot read it and see how it applies
to events going on around them.
Consider some of the big news stories over the several months. Consider,
for example, President Bushs recess appointment of John Bolton
to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and, more recently,
his recess appointment of Alice Fisher to head the criminal division
at the Department of Justice. Also consider in this grouping the nomination
of Appeals Judge John G. Roberts to fill the vacancy created by the
recent death of the Supreme Courts Chief Justice, William Rehnquist.
The Constitution states clearly in Article II, Section 2, subsection
2 that the President shall nominate, and by and with the advice
and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers
and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court
The next subsection
gives the President the power to fill up all vacancies that may
happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which
shall expire at the end of their next session. The President does
not act alone in filling high offices in his government. Having the
Senate approve Presidential appointments prevents a president
any president -- from putting unqualified friends and cronies in office,
or from trading appointments for favors or donations. The Framers understood
human nature well. The Constitution is full of checks and balances designed
to make government operate as well as possible even if not everyone
in government was perfectly noble or saintly.
The procedure for filling vacancies made more sense two centuries ago,
when the Senate was not in session for long periods and when the communication
and transportation systems did not permit the Senate to be easily recalled
if needed. Recess appointments to fill vacancies were intended to serve
in emergency situations, such as the death of an official. Today, however,
recess appointments are more often a way for Presidents to sidestep
Senate scrutiny of controversial nominees, even though the Senates
role in the nomination and confirmation process is unequivocally spelled
Judge Roberts is undergoing a thorough examination by the Senate and
by the public through a meticulous and time-consuming nomination process
that allows his record to be examined and which allows him to answer
questions directly before the Senate exercises its role in voting on
In the case of Ambassador Bolton and Ms. Fisher, however, the Senate
was not allowed to fulfill its constitutional role. The American people
were not allowed to have their concerns and questions about these nominees
pursued by their elected representatives. Mr. Boltons positions
on a number of issues, his judgment, and his personal demeanor were
called into question. Ms. Fishers possible role in interrogation
abuses at Guantanamo Bay had been called into question without being
answered. Citizens interested in the United States role in foreign
relations, and those interested in the leadership of the Department
of Justices criminal division, might now understand why they should
be interested in the arcane Constitutional subject of vacancies and
recess appointments. These provisions do affect their daily lives. They
affect the running of our government.
Our chief executive is chosen by the peoples representatives
every four years. He has the authority to command troops, but he may
not declare war, nor raise armies and navies. He runs an enormous bureaucracy,
the reach of which is felt in fields as diverse as commerce and foreign
trade, medical research and food safety, education and diplomacy, but
his powers are subject to oversight by the peoples representatives
in Congress and by an independent judiciary. The executive may promulgate
regulations, but may only accept or veto legislation. He is powerful,
but subject to checks and balances by the Congress --when the Congress
chooses to act to check him -- and by the Judiciary -- when his actions
are challenged by citizens. So to effectively prevent a President from
becoming too powerful or too autocratic, the people and the peoples
representatives must be both informed and vigilant.
The Constitution is the owners manual for the United States government.
That government, being of the people, for the people, and by the people,
is owned by the people of the United States. Each citizen has a responsibility
to keep the government running properly, to do the maintenance, fill
the gas tank and check the oil and tire pressure. But many more people
take their cars to Jiffy Lube than vote, it seems. Jiffy Lube, which
is just one of many companies offering a quick oil change, services
more than 30 million cars a year. Thats more than 120 million
cars in four years. In the 2004 presidential elections, just 116,208,
380 million people voted for the two major candidates. We must learn
to care about our government and our Constitution as much as we care
about our cars.
In a letter written in 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Unless
the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers
of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression,
and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their
families selected for the trust. That fundamental observation
is at the root of the checks and balances established in our Constitution.
The Framers were astute judges of human nature. They provided checks
and balances to thwart the common tendency of individuals or bureaucracies
which, once they gain power, wish to keep it or amass more power. President
Ronald Reagan put it more graphically when he observed that The
government is like a babys alimentary canal, with a happy appetite
at one end and no responsibility at the other. It is the natural
tendency of government to grow and to burrow more and more deeply into
every aspect of our lives, unless it is held in check.
Congress writes the laws that the Executive Branch must live by, subject
to oversight by the judiciary. That is outlined in Article I of the
Constitution. Section 8 of Article I spells out the specific powers
given to Congress. Every citizen should have some idea of these divisions
of power. Most of the specific powers concern everyday activities, things
that affect each of us every day. They concern taxes, commerce, government
borrowing, currency and counterfeiting, post offices and post roads,
and copyrights. Several of them involve military matters. Only Congress
may declare war and raise an army. Congress does not command the military
when it is called into action war cannot be run by committee.
But the collective wisdom and prudence of a committee is called for
in the decision to commit to a war, rather than the judgment or rashness
of a single individual. That same collective judgment is put in charge
of maintaining and running the military Section 8 gives Congress
the power to raise, organize, arm, and discipline the military forces.
In these ways, the Framers sought to ensure that no dictator could come
to power by controlling the military, as we have seen happen in other
Of course, the ultimate Congressional check on the executive is the
power of the purse, if it is exercised. Article II, Section 9, subsection
7 contains the operative words: No money shall be drawn from the
treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law
To extend President Reagans baby analogy at bit further, Congress
must be the mother to the government baby, regulating the cash flow
in and looking after the output, keeping baby from becoming too gluttonous.
Even within the Congressional branch there are checks and balances.
The House, elected every two years, originates revenue bills. That is,
those officials who most frequently stand before the body politic for
reelection are responsible for raising taxes. The Senate, elected for
six year terms, confirms nominees and approves treaties. The two Houses
of Congress must reach agreement between themselves on legislation before
it goes to the President for signature or veto. All of this is spelled
out in the short document that is our Constitution. Any citizen can
become a political pundit if they can correctly interpret which article
or provision is being properly exercised or abused in the course of
any governmental action.
Article III concerns the judicial powers. The judiciary sits in judgment
over the laws and regulations passed by the States and the federal government.
Because judges must be able to remain impartial, they do not have to
face reelection or reappointment. Judges hold their offices not for
life, as is commonly held, but during good behavior. Generally,
of course, that is the same as a lifetime sinecure. Because of this
clause, the nomination process for judges must be conducted with the
greatest scrutiny and thoroughness. Judge Roberts is just 50 years old.
Justice Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, serving
as chief justice for 19 years. The nation will likely live with this
choice for a very long time.
I hope these few examples illustrate how the Constitution affects each
of us in some way every day. But no one should become complacent. The
Constitution is not self-regulating. It depends on an informed populace
to keep it functioning properly.
Why is it vital for every citizen to know and understand the importance
of the Constitution? Think of it this way: if one were an employee at
an industrial plant, and noticed that some critical piece of equipment
was corroded, worn, or in some way indicating that it might fail, one
would not hesitate for a second. One would immediately notify someone
and get that piece of equipment fixed. After all, the failure of that
critical piece might cause a devastating accident that could kill oneself
or other employees. Its failure might cause the plant to shut down for
some period of time, throwing people out of work. Ultimately, the plant
owners might decide that instead of rebuilding the plant after the failure
and the loss of productivity, they would close it permanently and move
the jobs offshore. Any of those outcomes is possible if one failed to
be a good employee who understood the workings of the plant.
Our responsibility as citizens is no less clear. If, though a lack
of vigilance based on a incomplete understanding of the Constitution,
we allow the balance of powers between the three branches of government
to tip too far in any one direction, or we cede too much control to
the federal government or to the states, we will surely end up with
a government very different from the one the nation has thrived under
for the last 218 years. As the tendency is for entities to try to accumulate
power, not give it up, we are more likely to end up with a government
that is more intrusive into more facets of our lives than it was when
we started. It will be more dictatorial, not less; more grasping of
our energies and money, not less; more bureaucratic, not less; more
restrictive, not less.
Thomas Jefferson said If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never
if we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it
is the responsibility of every American to be informed.
Plato observed that One of the penalties for refusing to participate
in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
Many people will respond to this warning with a ho-hum shrug and an
attitude of what can I do? Im just one insignificant little
citizen. But think about this: Rosa Parks was just one little
citizen. Martin Luther King was just one citizen. Susan B. Anthony was
just one citizen.
Each and every one of us has a responsibility to understand the Constitution
and to view the decisions of our government through the prism of the
Constitution. Citizens must keep the government in line, because the
government wont do it by itself. Every parent concerned about
the world their children will grow up in; every college student who
wants to make this nation a better place; every retiree who appreciates
all that this country has survived in the past each of us has
a reason to love the United States and to want to keep her strong. By
standing up and making yourself heard, you can make a difference. Support
elected officials who support the Constitution, not a party line.
The sad and scary fact is, however, that more Americans
know the ins and outs of judging the television shows American
Idol or Survivor than they do about the Constitution.
It is true that the Constitution is covered in our public schools, often
in the third or fourth grade, and then again, briefly, in seventh or
eighth grade. But most people need a bit more instruction than that.
After all, everyone must take the drivers test at regular intervals
throughout their lives, to ensure that they remember the rules of the
road. Surely the working of our government is equally important.
Last year, I introduced legislation to declare September 17 a national
holiday, called Constitution Day, to be celebrated with
appropriate ceremonies, much as Flag Day is on June 14th. That legislation
was not adopted, but an amendment that I offered to the omnibus appropriations
bill was. This amendment required all federal employees and all schools
receiving federal funds to receive education and training about the
Constitution each September 17th. When the 17th falls on a Saturday,
as it does this year, that training requirement shifts to a weekday.
Ah! I see enlightenment filling your faces now. You have grasped in
part why we are here today.
I hope that you will not see this annual event as a burden. Rather,
I hope that each year, each of you will renew your sense of devotion
to our great nation and increase your understanding of the mechanisms
that make it great. Those mechanisms are spelled out in the Constitution,
laid out like a mechanics diagram of an automobile engine. But
the Constitution does not have on-board computer diagnostics to keep
in running smoothly. It has only you the informed and watchful
citizenry to ensure that our national engine strikes on all pistons.
Daniel Webster said Hold on, my friends, to the Constitution
and the Republic for which it stands. Miracles do not cluster, and what
has happened once in 6,000 years, may not happen again. Hold on to the
Constitution, for if the American Constitution should fail, there will
be anarchy throughout the world.