Friday, September 16, 2011

Happy Constitution Day

September 17th officially is known in the United States as "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day" but is celebrated today because the 17th this year falls on a weekend. I  have nothing but love for the our Constitution. Not only does the Constitution and its amendments provide the great freedoms we have in America but it also shows how to balance states of different sizes with a strong central government. The EU could do worse than by following its example.

What bothers me is a law that Robert Byrd snuck into an omnibus spending bill in 2004.
Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.
With a few exceptions like the military academies, US universities are either run by the states, municipalities or are private institutions. It defeats the whole point of the Constitution for the Federal government to be dictating to US universities what educational programs must be held when.

Most universities do the minimum. Northwestern just points students to a website with Constitution related information and videos.

To help all of you celebrate Constitution Day here is the great preamble as I learned it as a kid.


  1. The US constitution has both its upside and its downside. Whilst it is a good thing to have a guarantee of basic rights and rules of government, some of the specifics are obviously more relevant to the period when the constitution was written than they are today. This leads some people to believe that the constitution is unquestionable, having the same status as a holy text in a religion. For example, the peculiar US laws on gun ownership (at least they look peculiar from the perspective of most of the rest of the western world) are extremely difficult to change because the pro-gun lobby resorts to argument by constitution.

    In my view, the rules of government need to be flexible enough to change with the times (something that all Western democracies are struggling with) whilst at the same time being rigid enough to avoid autocratic regimes. Whether a written constitution is the best way to achieve this is a matter for debate. The British concept of "common law" does not seem to do a worse job than a written constitution at enforcing this.

    Whatever clashes exist between state and federal government in the US, it seems to me that the governments of the EU are much more divisive. We can't even agree on a single currency or a unified economic system. This leads to an excessively beuracratic system, designed to make the individual countries feel like they haven't given up any control, whilst still allowing the EU to get some things done. For example, did you know that the EU is not allowed to fund scientific research directly because that would interfere with the priorities of national research councils, despite the fact that the EU is the largest funder of scientific research in Europe? The beuracratic contortions required to prevent this paradox from collapsing are nightmarish, as anyone who has ever applied for an EU grant can tell you.

    Therefore, the idea that the EU should adopt a written constitution right now, which would no doubt enshrine such contortions in law forevermore, seems a bit problematic to me. It is a different type of organization from the US, so it needs a different type of government.

  2. Some (most?) of The founding fathers would have been APPALLED by the
    Loving Vs Virginia decision (1967, Supreme Court- saying
    that a state cannot pass laws banning interracial marriages).

    1) Some of the founding fathers would have been APPALLED at
    the idea of interracial marraige (private sex YES,
    declaring it publicly NO).

    2) Some of the founding fathers would have been
    APPALLED at the supreme court running roughshod
    over the states right to regulate marriage as
    they saw fit.

    3) Did anyone propose an analog to DOMA- that is,
    just because one state recognizes an interracial
    marriage, the others don't have to?

    4) I would like to ask the WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDING FATHERS DO crowd about this one- what do you do when
    the founding fathers are obviously WRONG and
    the legal system has not caught up. Wait until
    it does? I would ask, as always, nonrhetorically.

    5) The state vs federal debate is an important one and
    its not clear when the federal government should and
    should not step in.

    6) I learned the PREAMBLE from that SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK
    song! I can only recall it by singing it.

  3. Matt, are you aware of the amendments? There is a system in place to change things that the nation feels are out of date. It has been used to do so. There is also a Supreme Court that has taken upon itself to alter the intent of things in the Constitution when it fits certain societal attitudes (how else does something intended to give ex-slaves citizenship and rights and protection get used to say that states must allow illegal aliens to go to public school for free or state that the child of two illegal aliens is a citizen?).

  4. > "to be dictating to US universities what educational programs must be held when. "

    Only if you want Government's money, right? It does not dictate what they should do, it only says that we are not going to fund your program through government resources if you don't follow these guidelines. It just makes explicit what is implicit: government only funds programs of its choice that are aligned to its goals.

  5. Congress is allowed to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States" which pretty much opens up just about anything in reality since the "foregoing" includes things like "commerce" and "general welfare" which are nice and vague (can you say "regulate laser pointer use").

  6. Yes I am aware of the amendments and the role of the supreme court, but think how much easier those changes would be without a written constitution. The bottom line is that a democratic system of government does have to have a system of checks and balances and it does have to guarantee certain rights to its citizens. Whether those have to be enshrined in a written document is another matter. I don't think it is necessarily better to not have a written constitution, just that there are advantages and disadvantages either way.

  7. Anon #4, constraining speech conditioned on taking government money is still illegal. Imagine that state employees be required to campaign for the governor, or are forbidden from speaking against any current elected official, even outside of the workday. Obviously those would violate the First Amendment even if technically those rights were voluntarily waived in exchange for a paycheck.

    This article talks more about the point:

  8. The mandate does not require you to praise the Constitution. It does not detail what these educational programs look like. This should be noted.

  9. 1974-1995: If you wanted certain federal money you needed to have certain speed limits in your state.

    1984-Present: If you want certain federal money you need to have a minimum drinking age of 21.

    1990-Present: If you want certain federal funds you need to provide certain things for education of disabled children up to age 21.

    These exist(ed) even in the presence of Printz.

    Some of the above you might agree with. Others not. The point is, Constitution Day is not unique, not unconstitutional, and not a big deal.

  10. Why is this blog still named "Computational Complexity"?

  11. The law is not unconstitutional, just ridiculous.

    Byrd, like many other legislators, never missed a chance to position himself as a "patriot".