We the People A Celebration of the Constitution of the United States of America
A speech given by Senator Robert C. Byrd. He proposed Constitution Day

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 Byrd’s Internet site. The speech was broadcast live on C-SPAN.

"We are here, of course, to talk about the world’s 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 nation’s 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 Bush’s 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 Court’s 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 Senate’s role in the nomination and confirmation process is unequivocally spelled out.

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 his nomination.

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. Bolton’s positions on a number of issues, his judgment, and his personal demeanor were called into question. Ms. Fisher’s 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 Justice’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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 people’s representatives must be both informed and vigilant.

The Constitution is the owner’s 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. That’s 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 baby’s 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 nations.

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 Reagan’s 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 will be…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? I’m 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 won’t 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 driver’s 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 mechanic’s 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.”

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posted 9/2006 by Cynthia J. O'Hora