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Constitution gets House GOP star role; Will be read aloud fully for first time

When Republicans take control next week, they will do something that apparently has never been done before in the 221-year history of the House: They will read the Constitution aloud.

And then they will require that every new bill contain a statement by the legislator who wrote it citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed law.

Call it the "tea party"-ization of Congress.

"It appears that the Republicans have been listening," said Jeff Luecke, a sales supervisor and tea party organizer in Dubuque, Iowa. "We're so far away from our founding principles that, absolutely, this is the very, very tip of the iceberg. We need to talk about and learn about the Constitution daily."

These are two standout changes on a long list of new rules Republicans will institute in the House when they assume the majority next Wednesday. After handing out pocket Constitutions at rallies, after studying the document article by article and demanding that Washington return to its founding principles, tea party activists have something new to applaud. A pillar of their grass-roots movement will become a staple in the bureaucracy that governs the Congress.

But the question being debated in legal and political circles is whether the constitutional rules are simply symbolic flourishes to satisfy an emboldened and watchful tea party base.

"I think it's entirely cosmetic," said Kevin R.C. Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University who said he is a conservative libertarian and sympathizes with the tea party.

"This is the way the establishment handles grass-roots movements," he added. "They humor people who are not expert or not fully cognizant. And then once they've humored them and those people go away, it's right back to business as usual. It looks like this will be business as usual -- except for the half-hour or however long it takes to read the Constitution out loud."

The reading of the Constitution will occur next Thursday, a day after the swearing-in of Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker. The 4,543-word document, including all 27 amendments, could be read aloud in just 30 minutes. But the exercise probably will last longer.

The House Historian's Office found no record of the Constitution ever having been read aloud on the House floor, although twice lawmakers have submitted the entire text into the Congressional Record.

The constitutional authority rule will restart this debate with each new bill. Every piece of legislation now will require a statement from its sponsor outlining where in the Constitution that Congress finds its power to pass such a bill.

This is such a big change to the daily routine on Capitol Hill that Republican leaders distributed a five-page memo to lawmakers outlining how to determine a bill's constitutional authority. They also hosted training sessions for legislative aides.

The continuing debate over the recent health care overhaul is rooted in questions of constitutionality. The Constitution does not explicitly allow an individual mandate for health care, but supporters of the law say the Constitution gives Congress the authority to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper" to provide for the "general Welfare."

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