Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia believed in a “dead” Constitution. In a manner of speaking, he believed that this document should be followed word-for-word. Despite a highly charged political season, it was quite sublime when the majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, declared only hours after Scalia’s death that President Obama cannot and will not pick a Supreme Court judge to replace him. This revolutionary idea spread quickly among all the Republican candidates for president, who echoed the same sentiment. Marco Rubio put it quite succinctly: “I don’t trust Obama”
The writers of the Constitution in the late 18th century could not have imagined life in the 21st. Yet Scalia based his interpretations on, and other members of Congress today subscribe to, originalism. They insist on a congenital interpretation of the constitution. Nevertheless, in their haste to oppose President Obama, it is Republicans who have become more adventitious in honoring the Constitution.
Now, after some time to ruminate and facing a fire storm of media sarcasm, some in the GOP, like Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the judiciary committee, back peddled with this statement: “I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions … In other words, take it a step at a time.”
President Obama has faced Republican obstructionism throughout his presidency. It began on the eve of his inauguration, heightened after the Tea Party made large inroads into the Republican Party, culminating with winning the majority of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Since that time, President Obama has faced vituperative intrusion into the business of governing the country: birther conspiracy theories, the infamous “you lie” shoutout during a State of the Union speech, and the turn of a blind eye by the right wing in letting their base believe he is a Muslim, an interloper in the White house who doesn’t belong. A recent poll found a majority of Republicans indeed believe he is a Muslim.
As Obama’s frustration grew in tandem with congressional obstructionism, he made the decision to use the power of executive orders to bring change. This gave the right wing yet another talking point to support their belief they should be obstructionists: Obama is foregoing his duty as President by failing to uphold the Constitution.
That was not only an anathema to reality, in essence, it was conservatives who were playing fast and loose with America’s framework.
In 2013 when the Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless the Affordable Care Act was repealed, this was in direct opposition the language in the 14th Amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned. … The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States … [and] to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”
Again in 2015 at a critical time of negotiation with Iran by the U.S. and its partners on nuclear disarmament, Republican Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican senators wrote to the leadership of Iran. At the time Republicans themselves admitted it was aimed at encouraging Iranian opponents of the nuclear negotiations to argue that the United States cannot be counted on to keep the bargain.
This is the latest example of a congressional violation, this time of the Logan Act, which states: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”
Now in 2016, with the death of a Supreme Court judge, the GOP moved quickly and with fleeting thought for what the Constitution really says to announce to the world that the current president (who still has 11 months left in his term) is disallowed his constitutional right to even send a nominee for a hearing. The only surprise in their position is that they waited only hours after Scalia’s death.
The Grand Old Party has taken the mantle of “judge and jury” on what the Constitution says and means. Even the forefathers who wrote this document had reservations about when and how the need for changes and real life interpretations would occur in succeeding generations. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “No work of man is perfect. It is inevitable that, in the course of time, the imperfections of a written Constitution will become apparent. Moreover, the passage of time will bring changes in society which a Constitution must accommodate if it is to remain suitable for the nation. It was imperative, therefore, that a practicable means of amending the Constitution be provided.”