Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Highly Factitious Overview of the U.S. Constitution

As all Americans know, our country recently celebrated Constitution Day, our most cherished holiday since Congress first declared it in...2004. Huh. Anyway, if there's one thing Americans love, it's loving the Constitution. Yet paradoxically, many of us don't actually know the text of our founding document particularly well. Shockingly few citizens can locate the famous "one text, one vote" guarantee, and many believe that the Constitution discusses rights it actually does not (such as the "right to party", which actually comes from France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man). Fortunately, I, a renowned expert on constitutionalness, intend to rectify the situation. I have studied the Constitution deeply, distilled it into its essence, and now present it to you in the clearest and, some might say, best, summary possible. So prepare to learn as I unfold the mysteries of the document Rolling Stone called the third greatest human achievement of all time, behind only the wheel and Abbey Road.

The Preamble: In The Beginning....

If the preamble to the Constitution doesn't make you shed a tear of joy, you are a communist and I hate you. For the rest of us, the beauty of the words is evident. Other preambles don't even compare. Consider the Magna Carta's:
John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects, Greeting 
I don't think we need to say anything more besides Constitution: 1, Everything Else: 0. After the preamble the real show begins, beginning with...

Article I: Who's Got the Votes with the Motsts?

It's the legislative branch, the most beloved of our three (four?) branches of government! The Constitution establishes two legislative bodies to form Congress: The House of Representatives, which is larger, more democratic, and throws rowdier parties; and the Senate, which is calmer, more aristocratic, and is probably full of people with posh accents and monocles. The Senate is famous for perfecting the filibuster, which is sort of like an unlimited sick day that lets them avoid doing any work at all by threatening to talk about legislation, which Senators absolutely hate. The filibuster is allowed because the Constitution lets Congress to set its own rules on when, how, or whether it to do anything.

Seemed like a good idea at the time
The Constitution also grants Congress the responsibility of going to war.

...which they did until about 1940, when they realized that war is complicated, controversial, and not as fun as keggers or yacht clubs, so they agreed,  "Screw it, we'll let the executive branch deal with it."

What is the Executive branch? Why, the Constitution is here to tell us!

Article II: Extant Expletives Excoriate Exemplary Execution, Exceeding Execrable Expectations

The Executive branch is outlined in Article II, and consists of the president and all the busy, important looking people who rush around using words like "POTUS" and "Defcon" in the movies. If you're glancing at the Constitution while you read this, knock it off; I'm already covering the important stuff for you. If you insist on reading it yourself, though, forget Article II, Section 1, which is long and boring and mostly irrelevant.

Section 2 is more awesome:  It names the president Commander in Chief. Basically, this means that he is in charge of the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Space Marines, and the Militia. The president is the guy who decides when, where, why, and how to go to war, like a boss. It seems like an awful lot of power to give to one person, and some people think there should be some kind of "check" or "balance" to the executive. Technically Congress is supposed to do that, but they've got things to do and presidents have never abused the war power anyway, so we're good.

The rest of Article II consists of rules for appointing ambassadors, procedures for impeachment, and arcane guidelines on presidential breeches and wigs, which they are still required to wear for at least seven hours each day.

If the rules for the executive and legislative branches seem a little dry, never fear, because it's time to cover...

Article III: The Judiciary. Sigh.

Dammit. Well, yeah, judges. Frankly, by the time the framers got to Article III even they were out of ideas, because it basically says, "Hey, let's have judges and we'll make Congress figure the rest out later." Which, in fairness, it did, establishing the judiciary as a subordinate branch until Marbury v. Madison in 1803, when the Supreme Court became self-aware and wrestled power from its congressional overlords in what came to be known as (wait for it) Judgement Day. Congress, in typical fashion, said "eh, whatever," and the judiciary developed into a powerful branch capable of reviewing actions from both the legislature and executive, which most scholars believe is better than what the Constitution originally intended, so suck it, Madison. The "major leagues" of judicial-err-ship... is the Supreme Court which in recent decades has been narrowly split into contentious conservative and liberal factions.

Except for Justice Kennedy, who is a Hufflepuff.
Articles IV etc: Stuff and things

Yeah, we're skipping Articles IV-VII (aka the sequel quadrilogy). They start repeating themselves, resurrecting old characters, and retconning previous sections, which just gets tedious after a while. In fact, I'm just gonna come out and say it: The Constitution, at least as originally signed, is overrated. Luckily the framers cleverly inserted a means of fixing it; a sort of constitutional "control-z" known as the amendment process. And it didn't take them long to get to amending, because right after Congress first met they came up with their best material yet:

The Bill of Rights: The Good Part

This is the stuff most people mean when they talk about The Constitution! The Bill of Rights starts strong with what most scholars agree is the "Americanist" amendment, the First.

Ironically, The Constitution requires that you slowly hum "My Country Tis of Thee" while reading this to yourself.
Freedom of Speech. Freedom Of Religion. Freedom Of Public Assembly. Freedom to Complain About and To The Government. America. Although we sometimes disagree on what those concepts mean, or how to apply them, most American agree that these words are sacred; they are what define us as a country. I invite you to share your feelings in the comments below, in celebration of your glorious freedom. You can...oh oh...oh no. No. No. Not that. Why would you... That's not what...that's not why...

The First Amendment: just for the lulz
Okay, so the First Amendment is not always that wonderful, but it's pretty good in general. Let's not dwell on it and instead move to the Second Amendment

Fortunately, when it comes to an important issue like laws governing the the use of deadly modern weapons the Constitution is perfectly clear and unambiguous, like the Bible, so there's little point delving further into the text itself. Today's Second Amendment is extremely robust thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions and many state governments having made it easier than ever to purchase and use firearms. Wide prevalence of and easy access to guns may also encourage a thriving illicit black market for criminals, but what are you going to do? (That's not a rhetorical question: the correct answer is to arm everyone and let citizens shoot out their difference as the framers intended.) Thankfully, gun advocates are placid in the face of the near total collapse of meaningful firearms restrictions, and are in no way prone to fear mongering about imminent threats to their pro-gun political hegemony. Which is nice because gang violence and mass murder sprees really aren't that common when you think about it.

But, while amendments one and two are going strong, that's not necessarily the case with the rest. Witness our friend the Fourth Amendment (fun fact: there is no third amendment. James Madison, drafter of the Bill of Rights, didn't know how to count.) The Fourth Amendment was meant to protect against unlawful government searches and helped establish the idea of the right to privacy, which some might say is a foundation of American society, but with all the terrorism and the Facebooking and the fact that protecting privacy in an online world is hard; well, we're probably better off without the Fourth Amendment.

Luckily Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court agree
Then there are a bunch of other amendments you can safely ignore, until you get to... The Tenth Amendment!

This amendment may have been used to justify some slightly troubling ethical issues about property and whether people could be it.
This is another one that everybody unanimously agrees on, because why wouldn't they? The Constitution grants certain powers to states and others to the Federal government, occasionally using broad and vague wording which either is or isn't open to expansive interpretation depending on your sociopolitical beliefs and your understanding of how language actually works. QED. I'm not sure why we even have political differences.

And with that we'll conclude our tour, because while the rest of the twenty...I want to say...two... amendments are technically part of the Constitution, they're too complicated to cover in one post and statistically you probably haven't read this far anyway. Besides, the Tenth Amendment allows us to end where we began. With us. All of us. America. Happy belated Constitution day!

Ordained and Established, Yo.