Van Ens: Constitutional speed bumps slow Congressional pace (column) |

Van Ens: Constitutional speed bumps slow Congressional pace (column)

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at

Our nation’s founders signed our Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, in Philadelphia. They intentionally placed speed bumps in our nation’s founding document.

Presenting Thomas Jefferson in period costume to schools, libraries, service groups and religious organizations around the Sunday, Sept. 17, observance of Constitution Day, I applaud the founders’ wisdom in erecting congressional speed bumps.

These founders rejected both tyranny at the top with a monarch and anarchy at the bottom with local colonial vigilantes calling the shots. Scripture records chaotic times when “there was no king in Israel; every person did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21-25). The founders remembered how ancient Israel overcorrected, dethroning social anarchy with some tyrannical kings.

Constitutional founders didn’t merge political power in a king, nor did they directly distribute it to citizens. Instead, they placed legislative power in councils, committees and elected representatives who practiced compromise.

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For example, the U.S. Senate intentionally moves methodically, like comedian Jack Benny told jokes. Benny took time delivering punch lines. He’d pause. Then stare at the audience. After placing a hand on his cheek, Benny slowed his verbal pace to that of running molasses. Another pause … after which came a punch line. The Senate moves just as slowly.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is correct in his “Charge to My Fellow Members of Congress.” “Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to,” McCain emphasizes (The Denver Post, Sept. 5, 2017).

Thomas Jefferson respected the Constitution for its legislative compromises. States with large populations gained clout in the House of Representatives. States with small populations evened the score by having two Senators, the same number allotted to each state.

Jefferson “was genuinely more interested in effective governance than petty politics,” writes biographer John B. Boles. “He understood that the American system depended on compromise and believed that moderation would attract to his position many citizens — and, he hoped, lawmakers — who initially opposed his principles. The pragmatic Jefferson understood better than the Federalists that he was president of all Americans, not just those who supported him” (“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” p. 390 Basic Books 2017).

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rightly recognized constitutional speed bumps. He told a Rotary Club in northern Kentucky that President Donald Trump has “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in a democratic process.” Predictably, the president shot back in a mid-August Phoenix campaign rally that he will shut down the federal government this autumn to get funding for his border wall. Then he backed off from this threat by striking deals with Democrats on hurricane disaster relief and the national debt limit. Will bipartisan compromises continue?

“We’re going to get our wall,” the president promised. “If we have to close down the government, we’re building that wall” whether Congress approves or not. “The crowd loved it,” reports The Wall Street Journal, “but this is the political equivalent of holding a gun to his own head and saying that if Congress doesn’t do what he wants, Mr. Trump will shoot himself” (“Beating his own head against a wall,” Aug. 24, 2017).

As Karl Rove pointed out in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Trump assumes the Senate will submit to his edicts. He promises legislative victories running over congressional speed bumps. “We are moving very quickly,” he said, referring to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (Feb. 27). “We are going to have tax reform at some point very soon” (April 12). Building roads and repairing bridges merely takes a few executive orders before infrastructure “will take off like a rocket ship” (June 8).

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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