September’s Democratic debate didn’t settle much for primary voters, but it did clarify where the Democrats stand on one of the more fractious internal debates roiling their party: Does the Constitution constrain their ambitions? The prevailing answer seems to be “no.”
Perhaps the most consequential moment of the debate occurred during a navel-gazing exchange over the virtues of a federal mandate to confiscate firearms in private hands. “There’s no constitutional authority to issue that executive order when they say, ‘I’m going to eliminate assault weapons,’” Joe Biden pleaded. His appeals were summarily dismissed by Sen. Kamala Harris. “I would just say, ‘Hey, Joe, instead of saying no we can’t, let’s say yes, we can,’” she replied with a laugh. But the former vice president persisted. “Let’s be constitutional!” he insisted. “We’ve got a Constitution.”
Biden may for now be the favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination, but he’s firmly on the losing side of the intramural debate over whether or not “we’ve got a Constitution.” For a growing number of Democratic standard-bearers, the Constitution is, at best, an afterthought.
The latest example of this phenomenon is the progressive desire to see the Union of American states expand (Donald Trump’s apparent desire to annex Greenland notwithstanding). When progressive elites are not agitating for the abolition of the U.S. Senate, they’re seeking to enlarge the Union with reliably Democratic states, which would presumably pack the chamber with liberal legislators. This is the untoward—and, thus, largely unspoken—animating principle behind the Democratic push to admit the city of Washington, D.C., into the Union as a full-fledged state.
This week, the Democrat-led House of Representatives held its first hearing in a quarter-century to discuss precisely that issue. The federal city held a parade in support of such a measure, complete with festooned lampposts and apocryphal American flags with 51 stars. From establishmentarian Democrats like Nancy Pelosi to insurgents represented by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.C. statehood is discussed as a matter of enfranchisement and self-determination. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser dismissed the notion that Democrats are pursuing statehood only to pack the upper chamber of Congress as a “bad faith” argument, though her fellow liberal partisans apparently missed the memo. “Visualize two extremely liberal senators joining Mitch McConnell in the upper chamber,” Vice News declared, thus giving the Democrats’ carefully calibrated game away.
“The fact is, denying American citizens a vote in this body that taxes them goes against the very founding premise of this nation,” Bowser added. She can take her complaint up with the Founders. The Constitution’s framers, including James Madison, described the need for a constitutionally mandated “federal district” from which the national government would exercise its duties without depending “on the State comprehending the seat of the Government for protection in the exercise of their duty.” The 1783 march on Philadelphia by a mob of disgruntled Continental soldiers lent real urgency to his concerns.
Some contend that statehood can be achieved through legislation alone, but it took a constitutional amendment to provide the city with representation in the Electoral College. In 1978, Congress passed an amendment that would ensure that D.C. was “treated as though it were a State,” but only 16 states ratified it before it expired seven years later. Since no similar language is currently before Congress, we can conclude that the push for statehood by Democrats is little more than a positioning statement.
Whether it’s gun buy-backs by fiat, fracking bans, or the summary expropriation of wealth, the Constitution is no obstacle for Democrats. At least, when it comes to the left’s desire to eliminate the Electoral College and establish the nation’s first and only national, federally-administered election, Democrats have grudgingly conceded that the nation’s founding charter is an obstacle. Given the dim prospects of such an adventure, you can see why Democratic esteem for the Constitution is so perceptibly low.