What’s the Constitution Got to Do With It?

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on December 11th, 2008

Admist the avalanche of bad economic news, what does the constitution have to do with it?  Abstract concepts simages3.jpguch as federalism, separation of powers, and preemption seem so insignificant when thousands of people around us are losing their jobs, their homes and their health care.  What, if anything, can the Constitution do to help our country now?  Nothing –  if by the constitution, we mean court enforcement of the constitutions provisions.  The United States Supreme Court long ago made it clear that there are no individual constitutional rights to a job, a home, or even economic subsistence.  However, the Constitution means more than just what the Court says it does.  The United States Constitution also embodies the fundamental values of our country, and as Larry Kramer argues, the “people themselves” (ourselves) have a say in interpreting those values.

During the New Deal, our country experienced what Bruce Ackeman called a “constitutional moment” as Congress and the president transformed our government.  New Deal measures expanded federal power, creating the modern administrative state and an economic safety net with programs such as Social Security, and protecting the right of workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively.   As our representatives consider such unprecedented measures as the bailout of the financial sector and the automobile industry, this may be time for another constitutional moment.

What individual rights do we believe in – the “right” of workers to compete without government protection as the automobile industry goes bankrupt, or the right of all Americans to health care?  What should the goals of members of Congress be as they regulate interstate commerce?  The growth of the economy no matter who benefits, or an economy that provides decent jobs for middle class workers?  We the people have a say in answering these questions, which are fundamental to the values, the structure and the future of our country.  Then, we must demand that our representatives implement our constitutional vision.


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