Tea, the People: A closer look at the Constitution is both “necessary and proper”

Tea Party supporters demand that their legislators abide by it, hold readings of it at rallies, and consider it the foundation of their political movement. But, echoing many religious fundamentalists’ approaches to scripture, Tea Partiers adhere to the Constitution’s text and history only selectively. Ignoring certain passages while emphasizing others, many espouse a warped view of the Constitution that muddles their own goals. If our government is to truly follow our Founders’ intentions, our politicians and citizens must view them in light of our current political discourse.

To understand America’s sacred text accurately, the context is critical. Our Founding Fathers convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation, which suffered from a feeble national government and an inability to raise revenue or solve national concerns. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention sought to create a new framework for our young nation by balancing individual rights and a strong national government. This equilibrium makes our nation functional and free.

Many Tea Partiers oppose legislation based on a misguided understanding of the Founders’ goals. They rail against the 2010 healthcare bill on the grounds that the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to mandate individual health care. Yet Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 supports this aspect of the bill: Congress has the authority to regulate interstate commerce and make all laws which are “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.” This clause has been invoked to defend government programs since the days of the New Deal. Government mandates are not a novel concept; they stretch all the way back to the second Militia Act of 1792, when the government required male citizens to possess certain weapons and other items, such as a “knapsack,” ammunition, and, in some cases, “a serviceable horse.”

Tea Party supporters and candidates have also contested numerous Constitutional amendments. Tea Party-backed congressional candidates, such as Vaughn Ward of Idaho, have argued that the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) does not represent the Founders’ will because it diminishes the influence of states in Congress. Nevertheless, the intention of federalism within the Senate remains by its inclusion of two representatives per state.

The 16th Amendment (federal income tax) has also come under fire. Harry Reid’s challenger Sharron Angle, who proclaimed, “I am the Tea Party,” argued against the income tax as an unnecessary federal government expansion. While the Founders did not impose an income tax, they clearly understood the necessity of taxation after the failed experiment of the Articles of Confederation. And the Constitution reflects this: Congress has the “power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Indeed, the Founders understood the difference between colonial taxation, in which colonists were unrepresented in parliament, and taxation legislated by representatives of the people.

With their emergence on the national scene, Tea Party supporters and candidates have brought Constitutional issues to the forefront of American politics. Their efforts to match current political issues to our government’s framework should be lauded. However, if the Tea Party wants to be the “party of the Constitution” and maintain its relevance in Washington, its supporters must embrace the Constitution as a whole rather than just picking and choosing. They must acknowledge that while the Constitution restrains the federal government from resembling the 18th-century British monarchy, it also strives to create a strong national presence to govern its people effectively.


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