Constitution Day: Byrd’s Latest Highway to Nowhere

Guest Commentary

I drive through West Virginia all the time, and it’s hard to give directions there.  You always find yourself saying, “Take the Robert Byrd out to the Robert Byrd, and make a left onto the Robert Byrd.”  It seems like every road in the place is named after ye olde Senior Senator.

It’s long been known that Senator Byrd is a king of pork, a veritable stud of the Golden Fleece.  But did you know that the stuff now comes with strings attached?  As everybody in the entire universe of American education has learned in the last few weeks, thanks to something the Senator snuck into a funding bill late last year, every educational institution in the United States that receives the slightest hint of federal dollars has to dedicate one day to teaching the Constitution within the octave of Saturday, Sept. 17 – the Constitution’s anniversary, apparently.

And I mean the entire universe of American education.  Last Friday, The New York Times had fun reporting that a beauty school in Philadelphia and a massage-instruction outfit in Michigan were scrambling to comply with the Senator’s latest unfunded mandate.  At least that’s not scary.  One imagines that Rockefeller University, for example, which is strictly a medical school, and soaked with National Institutes of Health money, is cutting curriculum this week in its brain-surgery program to check Senator Byrd’s latest box.

Now what is so wrong with teaching/preaching the Constitution in deference to the wishes, nay the requirement of Senator Byrd?  Nothing, so long as we realize that Constitution Day, as we’re supposed to call this intervention into the ordinary September curricula of America’s schools, is an object lesson in how irrelevant the Constitution has become in the governance of the country.  As every schoolchild knows, the Constitution specifies powers granted to government balanced by immunities held by persons and their immediate forms of association, viz., the states.

Where is the federal power to require Constitutional education located in the venerable document of 1787?  The same place it says that the federal government can decide how many female golfers is the right number on the collegiate links team (as in Title IX), or how many Asian/Pacific Islanders makes things just so on the university faculty (as in Affirmative Action).  In other words, no place, to borrow a phrase from the patron saint of lawyers, Thomas More.

The great drama of Constitutional history in the twentieth century was the dramatic expansion of federal power despite the Constitution.  And I am not referring to judge-made law.  You’ve got to give it to the jurists who overly interpreted the Constitution.  At least they tried.  When William O. Douglas was just dying to justify a right to privacy in the contraception case, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), he felt so obligated to the Constitution that he forced it by saying that privacy was a “penumbra” of “an emanation” of the Bill of Rights – or something like that.

These guys behind Title IX and Affirmative Action and now, heavens, Constitution Day in all our schools don’t even try.  What they do is offer funding – massive funding – and attach strings.  You don’t go to jail for violating the tenets of Affirmative Action, you just don’t get any more checks.  None of this stuff is statutory, because it’s so plainly obvious that the federal government is not granted the power in the Constitution to micro-manage anything in American life.

If there’s something that should be taught this Constitution Day, it should be that the greatest Constitutional event of the twentieth century was the Sixteenth Amendment: the Constitutional provision that permitted the federal government to tax incomes.  That’s what enabled the feds to amass the war chest necessary to get otherwise independent citizens to dance to their tune.  Without the money – what’s the yearly budget now, $2 trillion, or seven times the annual revenue of the country’s biggest company, Wal-Mart? – the federal government would probably resemble something like what the Founders envisioned back on that September day in 1787.

Therefore sentimental events like Senator Byrd’s Constitution Day are counter-productive.  By inuring school pupils, university students, and, unbelievably, post-doctoral researchers to the idea that the country is actually superintended by the Constitution, we perpetuate a myth.  It would be more salutary for the Republic – and its Constitutional order – if we dispensed with pieties and dealt with the realization that the laws of the land are determined by the federal government’s almighty dollar.

Editor’s Note: Grove City College does not accept federal funds of any type, including federal student aid (which Grove City offsets with private aid). Grove City maintains its independent stand in order to avoid counter-productive federal regulations, such as Senator Byrd’s Constitution Day.

About Brian Domitrovic

Brian Domitrovic is an Asst. Professor of History at Sam Houston State University.

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