Politicians ignore clauses of the Constitution that don't serve their own political agenda
No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or, or grant any Title of Nobility. Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts ---U.S. Constitution Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1
No state shall… pass any… law impairing the obligation of contracts.
In the current political climate, our Colorado politicians easily have gained great credit with the tea party, with Libertarians, and with other conservative groups by meaningless claims of “preserving the true intent of our Founding Fathers” or by making any other non-substantive comments about supporting the Constitution.
Certainly I appreciate the protection of the Constitution, but there is something decidedly suspect when that protection is applied only when convenient or only when it serves the particular partisan objectives of our politicians. The Constitution, to the newly elected political class, seems to merely be a tool to defend the destruction of federal programs and to pursue the reduction in federal spending for their own political ambitions.
Unfortunately, those of us on the left too often fail to call out the clearly partisan objectives of their references to the Constitution: why are Colorado’s members of the Congressional Constitution Caucus not fighting to support Wisconsin’s teachers and public servants against that state’s law that is so plainly in violation of the U.S. Constitution?
The Constitution includes a clause that these politicians seem to think inconvenient: the “contract clause,” which prohibits states from passing laws impairing the obligation of contracts? Colorado’s Representative Cory Gardner, at one of his town hall meetings, told a constituent who asked about his views on the situation in Wisconsin that he was against collective bargaining for public employees. The implication, of course, was that he supported the Wisconsin Republican’s new law that substantially altered teachers’ contract with regard to their pensions, health care, and pay.
This response is exactly what you might expect from a politician that defends the Constitution only when it furthers his politics and agenda. The Constitution, however, should not be ignored when it serves particular political ends. These politicians so often talk about the “plain meaning” of the Constitution and that we should preserve the framers’ intentions, but in this case they ignore the clear meaning of the Constitution.
The Contract Clause - Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 - says, “No state shall… pass any law… impairing the obligation of contracts.” The new Wisconsin law, so eagerly defended by the right fundamentally alters the state’s contract with its employees with regard to pension plans and health benefits and additionally strips employees of collective bargaining rights (which potentially could be a violation of the implied rights of association from the 1st Amendment).
Essentially, the new law says that contracts Wisconsin obligated itself to previously are null and void because those obligations are now inconvenient to the state and the altering of those contracts is now political advantageous for the newly elected legislature. It is difficult to imagine a law that more directly impairs a contract, in violation of the Constitution’s limitation on state action.
In spite of the constitutional limitations, tea parties and their associated politicians across the nation seem to be pushing similar restrictions on public servants’ contracts. No on can legitimately assert that the issue is limited to one state: it is a national concern when one state decides it can create its own rules and destroy contractual rights.
If Wisconsin is free to destroy the contracts in which it has obligated itself then every other state is free to do the same. No contract ever signed by a state will be safe; no contract with any state will be dependable. Contracts to build bridges can now be altered because inconvenient; contracts to pay for school construction can now be abrogated because it might strain this year’s budget.
This has direct consequences for Colorado and every other state. Our new politicians love to pay lip service to the Constitution through their meaningless speech and their joining of well-named but impotent caucuses, but when they ignore the obvious and direct violations of the Constitution, they are truly doing the state a disservice. All of our politicians should stand against Wisconsin's blatant disregard for its teachers and our Constitution.
Note - There's a great deal of case law dealing with the Contract clause and it is specifically noted as applicable to contracts to which a state is a party. The clause has fallen out of favor in much litigation, but the fact that it remains an active part of our Constitutional language tells me it should not be ignored. I may go more into this case law at another time, but my free time to devote to this blog is limited.