What It Means When You Take That Oath of Office

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Friday, April 21, 2006
There is a small tempest whirling about Washington at the moment that may have escaped your attention. Earlier this year, Congress passed a new federal budget by very narrow margins — in the Senate, in fact, it required a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President. There's just one small problem: 

The versions passed by the House and Senate are different. The bill was signed by the President, but if you remember your 7th-grade civics class, it's not clear that this was constitutional. The Constitution requires the House and Senate to pass identical bills before sending them on to the White House. 

Should this worry a member of Congress who has sworn to uphold the Constitution? What about a measure that shifts power sharply away from Congress and to the President? Can anyone reasonably expect a lawmaker to hold each action he or she takes up to the light of the Constitution for examination? 

I think one can — and should. After all, every member of Congress swears an oath at the beginning of each term to "support and defend" the Constitution. 

And while every member has to decide for himself or herself what this entails, I can't help but think that at least a few of the excesses we've seen in recent years on Capitol Hill might have been avoided if every member set aside a little time every so often to reflect on the meaning of that oath, and on why the framers saw fit to have members swear allegiance to the Constitution. 

To begin with, the Constitution asserts a profoundly democratic vision of this nation, a bedrock belief in the sovereignty of the people and a vision of how our structures of government are meant to secure freedom. The Preamble, with its sweeping talk of justice, promoting the general welfare, and securing "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," is especially relevant here. 

Counterpoise this inspiring view of the hope underlying our system against the sordid details of the relationship between members and lobbyists laid bare by the Abramoff affair, and it's not hard to see that more attention to the ideals of the founders might have stood Congress in good stead. 

But defending the Constitution is not just about giving life to the vision it lays out. That venerable document is also an operating manual for our government, with a strong emphasis on the separation of powers. When you take the oath of office as a member of Congress, it means that you are swearing to defend the Congress as a strong, independent, and co-equal branch of government. 

Indeed, the longer one serves in Congress, the more loyalty one often develops to that body when it comes to sorting through the competing claims on its attention. The member's loyalty must go, not to the president or one's political party, but to the Constitution itself. 

In fact, I would argue that the congressional oath of office requires members of Congress to protect the powers of Congress especially from encroachment by the executive branch. 

The Constitution certainly provides for a strong executive. "Energy in the executive," Alexander Hamilton once said, "is a leading character in the definition of good government," and he was right. This does not mean, though, that Congress is free to ignore the careful balancing act embedded in the Constitution and allow its own prerogatives to be eroded, or countenance attacks on the independence of the judiciary. 

Vigor in the Congress is also, we might remember, a leading character in the definition of good government. Better public policy emerges, believed the founders, if both the president and the Congress are robust. 

The administration of the oath of office is such a fleeting thing, a few quick words on the hectic opening day of each new Congress before members of Congress dive into the hurly-burly of legislating, fighting partisan battles, and positioning themselves for the next election. It is easily overlooked. 

But we live in an era when the White House insists on strengthening its hand at the expense of Congress; when well-organized interests and even members of Congress, no less, feel free to launch attacks on the independence of judges; when a timid Congress gives more power to the president but less oversight; and when the strength and resources of the Washington lobbying corps often outweigh those of the ordinary American people whose rights and privileges were the concern of the drafters of the Constitution. 

At such a time, it seems to me, members of Congress need to take their oath of office seriously, and pay close attention to the Constitution they've sworn to protect and defend. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)