As the story now goes, back in August of 2007, Jared Lee Loughner, asked Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, “What is government if words have no meaning?” Some may identify this query as clear evidence of mental instability. However, it actually happens to be a very rational and important question.
Before launching into an analysis, though, it’s important to acknowledge the horrific context of the statement. That context informs our “reading.” In part, what made it an odd utterance was Loughner’s failure to appreciate that a public forum was an inappropriate place and time for such an abstract inquiry. And, of course, what makes it an indication of insanity was the fact that Loughner’s failure to receive what he considered a satisfactory response ignited a hateful, murderous plot.
On its own, though, the question, “What is government if words have no meaning” is a useful starting point for a discussion about textually-based authority and the nature and limits of power. We encounter this question when we struggle over the meaning of the Constitution. For example, the recent rhetoric around the Congressional authority to enact the federal health care legislation depends upon textual interpretation. It is the fight over what words signify and who should decide that has often sparked so much vitriol and violence.
Words and the meaning of words was in the news just a week ago with the reading of the Constitution, marking the Republicans’ take over of the House on January 5, 2011, the first day of the 112th Congress. Interviewed on National Public Radio on the following day, Harvard Law Professor and former Solicitor General under President Reagan, Charles Fried said that this was a “combination of mistake, ignorance and pure politics” that the Republicans were reading the Constitution as a way to suggest Congress has very limited powers. Fried said the Tea Party does not understand what the Constitution said and how the Supreme Court interpreted it in the era when it was written and ratified.
Professor Fried reminded the radio listeners of Chief Justice John Marshall who in 1819 (writing in McCulloch v. Maryland) declared that Congress has broad powers to do by all means necessary and proper anything that the Constitution does not otherwise block. If the end is within the power, then the means is within the choice of Congress, Fried echoed the opinion. In addition, as he noted, given that since 1944 insurance has been considered “commerce,” the health care bill would fall within the right of Congress to regulated interstate commerce (Article I, Section VII). Quoting McCulloch:
“If the end be legitimate, and within the scope of the Constitution, all the means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, and which are not prohibited, may constitutionally be employed to carry it into effect.”
I believe these words have meaning. Indeed, I believe that the words of Marshall, interpreting the Constitution, and a unanimous Supreme Court agreeing, all shortly after the Constitution was ratified have particular meaning. Some who wish to repeal the healthcare law or the financial reform legislation insist that unless the words detailing express permission for Congress to enact a particular law appear in the Constitution, Congress is not permitted to do so.
The idea, out of context, may seem perfectly rational. However, it must be placed within the context of the drafting of the Constitution and its interpretation by Supreme Court on this matter beginning nearly 200 years, ago. And, if so placed, it is truly irrational, signaling a world where words have no meaning and, thus Government cannot govern.