Saturday, January 8, 2011

The 112th Congress Begins Under a Cloud

The new Congress began earlier this week but today’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a constituent meeting in Tucson, is likely to shadow the proceedings for some time. Giffords, a third-term Democrat from southeastern Arizona, remains in critical condition; six of the wounded have died, including federal judge John Roll.

There have been a number of political assassinations and attempts in American history. These include slain Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy. Retired President Theodore Roosevelt was shot and narrowly escaped death on the campaign trail in 1912. In more modern times, there was the shooting of President Ronald Reagan, two abortive attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life and one against President Harry Truman.

Thirty-two years ago, Congressman Leo Ryan of California was killed on an official trip to the South American country of Guyana. His death preceded the infamous Johnstown Massacre. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was a victim in 1968. In 1954, Puerto Rican separatists wounded five congressmen in the U.S. Capitol. And back in 1935 flamboyant Senator Huey Long was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Today’s attack will be extensively investigated and there will be renewed concern about the safety of members of Congress and other public officials. While it is yet unclear what prompted this heinous event, it will be difficult to divorce it from the bitter political climate that has gripped the nation.

Still, elected officials need to do the people’s business. Despite whatever protective measures might ensue, public servants must be accessible and function in the public arena; that is the essence of our government.

This shooting was a sad ending for the first week of the 112th Congress. The Republicans, now empowered as custodians of the House of Representatives for only the ninth time since 1931, are primed to challenge President Obama. They also were looking to highlight the Constitution.

The Constitution was read on the floor, and it is now necessary that all bills provide a notation that the proposal is constitutional. Keeping in that spirit, legislators may want to read or reacquaint themselves with a key companion work, The Federalist.

These eighty-five essays were written to help secure ratification of the Constitution in the crucial state of New York in 1787 and 1788. Launched by Alexander Hamilton, they appeared in several New York newspapers and were later compiled. Hamilton wrote a majority of them but James Madison (especially) contributed as did John Jay.

These essays represent the finest articulation of the rationale for our form of government. In a very methodical way, they provide insights into the thinking of the Framers. Although scholars cite Federalist 10 and 51 as gems, there are many other impressive essays.

Federalist 53, for example, states: “No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment, a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.”

One important way to do this is by meeting with the people. We look forward to Congresswoman Giffords’ full recovery, and we hope that our public officials continue to move about us safe and unfettered.

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