New CongressJanuary 06, 2011
Yesterday, the 112th Congress began, with the most notable change being the passing of the over-sized gavel from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner. Some interesting changes have also occurred religiously. Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia became the House Majority Leader and therefore is the highest-ranking Jew in Congress. However, some Jewish leaders remain concerned about his politics. Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas became the first Mennonite elected to the US Senate, although he often claims to be Methodist. The Pew Forum has a more thorough breakdown of the religious affiliations of the members of the new Congress. The Democratic members of the 112th Congress are not only smaller in number, but more liberal after the loss of many of the so-called "Blue Dogs." Additionally, the Democrats particularly lost support among highly religious voters (whom the Democrats had reached fairly well in 2006 and 2008). Perhaps representative of this, 19 Democrats did not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Although she was going to lose anyway, this public repudiation is quite significant. Eleven of those Democrats voted for "Blue Dog" Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who has been among the Democrats using explicit Christian campaign rhetoric.
Today, the House spent close to two hours reading the text of the U.S. Constitution aloud (apparently some members cannot read it for themselves--which would actually explain quite a lot). Republican leaders made a big deal about how this was historic and had never been done before. Although, to be fair, it has probably never been done before because all other generations of congressional leaders assumed their members were capable of reading and so spent time actually getting work done. Interestingly, this ritualistic reading seems to indict that some revere the Constitution as if it were a sacred text. The Washington Post offered a good piece in which several politicians and political scholars confront this idea. During some discussion before the reading, Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. called the Constitution a "sacred document" that should be approached with a "sacred spirit." Treating the text that way changes the way we interpret it and what policies are implemented. Interestingly, the House did not actually read the whole text as they skipped sections that were voided by amendments even though the language actually stays in (so, apparently, despite the claims, the Constitution still has never actually been read aloud in Congress). Although Jackson wrongly pushed the sacred text view of the Constitution, he did wisely note that skipping parts of the Constitution changes the way people view policies and issues. Yesterday and today made for an interesting couple of days in the House, but now we will have to see if they can put aside the symbolism and actually get to work.