By Ben Sheehan
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This witty and highly relevant annotation of our founding document is the go-to guide to how our government really works (or is supposed to work).
Written by political savant and entertainment veteran, Ben Sheehan, and vetted for accuracy by experts in the field of constitutional law, OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? is an entertaining and accessible guide that explains what the Constitution actually lays out.
With clear notes and graphics on everything from presidential powers to Supreme Court nominations to hidden loopholes, Sheehan walks us through the entire Constitution from its preamble to its final amendment (with a bonus section on the Declaration of Independence). Besides putting the Constitution in modern-day English so that it can be understood, OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? gives readers all of the info they need to be effective voters and citizens in the November elections and beyond.
The Constitution is America’s instruction manual. Think of it as our “Terms and Conditions,” because like other terms and conditions most of us don’t know what the fuck is in it. Only 39 percent of American adults can name the 3 branches of government despite their being outlined in the Constitution’s first 3 articles. It’s weird that a country run by “the People” is full of people who don’t know how it runs. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems convenient—for some—that most of us are in the dark. If we don’t know how our government works, it’s hard for us to hold our elected leaders accountable. In a way, our ignorance is their permanence and also JUST KIDDING, I AM A CONSPIRACY THEORIST. IT’S A CONSPIRACY.
Looking at our education system today, I don’t really get why most schools shoehorn “how government works” into U.S. history or social studies. It feels like a class that deserves exclusive focus. Growing up I remember nodding along to the names of our founders, the dates of pivotal events, and the stories of how we came to be. They’re all interesting to an extent, but I also felt like we were BOMBARDED BY HISTORY. Teachers were SO PUMPED about America’s beginnings that the actual info on how it functions was lost. Often times I just wanted someone to say, “Here’s how our government works, and here’s how you can affect it.”
Having said that—when I feel like context is needed—I’ll throw it here. “BTW” gives background, “FYI” defines stuff, “IMO” proposes things, and “N/A” means it no longer applies. Read them, skip them, or alternate. Do you.
It’s good to know terms. The “federal” government applies to all states and territories, which each has their own government. In addition to the 50 states there are 5 permanently inhabited territories—American Samoa (51,000 people), the Northern Mariana Islands (52,000 people), the U.S. Virgin Islands (107,000 people), Guam (167,000 people), and Puerto Rico (3.3 million people). American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico have their own constitutions—as does each state—and the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico are “commonwealths” where Congress can’t take away their right to self-government (in this meaning of the word). But unlike states, territories lack congressional voting representation and the ability to vote for president (and for American Samoa, U.S. citizenship). There are also 9 permanently uninhabited territories—Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll (40 wildlife workers), Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll (20 scientists), and Wake Island (100 military personnel), and 2 disputed uninhabited territories—Bajo Nuevo Bank (disputed with Colombia) and Serranilla Bank (disputed with Colombia and Honduras). The federal government also governs Washington, D.C. (720,000 people), aka the seat of government, and it affects U.S. citizens living abroad. But the 573 federally recognized Native American tribes, on 326 federally administered reservations, with 1.2 million residents total, are largely left to local control. And then within states and territories there are cities, counties, towns, townships, and school districts with their own local governments. But this book covers the federal government and parts of state governments, since that’s what our Constitution establishes. Now that you know the federal government’s entire jurisdiction, let’s continue.
Because, in truth, I find our historical fixation sort of masturbatory, to the point of muddying the actual rules. It’s like approaching a recipe by analyzing the mind-set of the chef when he devised it. Were there exigent circumstances at the time of his cooking? Were his ingredients limited because of weather conditions or a lack of proximity to trade? Did he consider other chefs’ approaches before attempting his own? This may bring greater understanding to the dish, but also, just tell me how to make the fucking quiche.
I guess what I’m describing is the difference between U.S. history and civics. U.S. history leans on memorization and passive learning, while civics is our participation toolkit, the study of government and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. These include understanding how government works, at all levels, and knowing how we can use it to better our lives. But right now, our schools teach WAY more U.S. history than civics. As of this writing, 30 states require at least a year of U.S. history, while only 8 states require a year of civics or government. If we only spent a year learning how to read between kindergarten and 12th grade, we’d also suck at it. Maybe that’s why proficiency in civics across K–12 hasn’t reached 30 percent in the last decade. But civics isn’t some ditchable elective—it’s vital stuff. George Washington even tried to create a national university around it. In his 8th (and final) State of the Union address, he told Congress,
a primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of Government. In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? and what duty more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?
So, our first president thought it was the most important subject, and 224 years later just 8 states require a year of it. Great job, everyone!!
The idea for this book came about last year; I was cleaning my apartment when I came across my pocket Constitution from 8th grade (I was lucky my school distributed them). Out of curiosity, I decided to reread it. And honestly? It was rough. I know it’s 200+ years old, but the punctuation seemed picked from a hat. The sentences are dense. The phrasing is odd. For something so important it struck me how inaccessible it was. We can argue about grammar and whether it’s a necessity or a classist relic, but let’s be honest: If someone wrote and spoke in the style of the Constitution today, you would keep postponing plans with them.
In September of 1789—6 months after the Constitution took effect—Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison about treating constitutions as living works, so that past generations didn’t force outdated principles onto future ones.
Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.
I don’t know about brand-new constitutions every 19 years, but I do know that—of every country in the world—we have the oldest constitution still in use. So at a minimum, I can support updating its presentation every few years so that new generations can grasp it. Because before we decide to change the Constitution—or fight to keep it—we should know what it actually says. And while it’s true that the Constitution was originally written by a few of us, just for some of us, today it belongs to all of us. We have a right to know what’s inside.
And lastly, I wanted to make sure that, in the process of paraphrasing the Constitution, I wasn’t just injecting my bias. So I tried to note my opinions, while also running this book by multiple constitutional experts for their thoughts and feedback.
Yes, there are conflicting constitutional interpretations; ⅓ of the federal government (the judicial branch) is devoted to it. But while some of the Constitution has caused centuries of debate, I believe most of its information is straightforward, if oddly styled.
I’ve also included the Constitution’s original text, for reference, and I’ve added the Declaration of Independence. It isn’t part of the Constitution, but it did set the table for it.
So without further ado, here is a non-boring guide to the U.S. Constitution.
ARTICLES OF THE CONSTITUTION
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Some Europeans are starting a country that will provide justice, peace, safety, and freedom. It will ensure fairness, stop uprisings and invasions, and protect people’s rights. The country will also facilitate the health, happiness, and prosperity of its people. The people will run this country.
55 guys of European descent—or “delegates” from 12 of the 13 states (minus Rhode Island)—attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787. The number of delegates eventually dwindled from 55 to 41, and 39 ended up signing the Constitution—32 English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Dutch descendants and 7 English, Irish, or Scottish immigrants. But as for “liberty,” half of the delegates owned slaves. Slaves were almost 20 percent of the population in 1787, so the justice, peace, safety, freedom, health, happiness, and prosperity parts didn’t apply to everyone… but the amendments would eventually help.
ARTICLE I: Section 1
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
CONGRESS (AKA THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH)
ARTICLE I: SECTION 1
Our government is a “republic” because we send people to Congress to make our decisions for us (it would be hard for the whole population to make every decision). But it’s also a “democracy” because those people, or “representatives,” are democratically elected by us. Therefore, America is a representative democracy or a democratic republic (fun terms that roll off the tongue).
“Congress,” our federal legislature, is the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress, and ONLY Congress, writes our laws—but only the ones the Constitution says it can.
Many people believe Congress only means the House of Representatives. While “Congress” and “the House” are sometimes used interchangeably, THIS IS WRONG. Also, because Congress has 2 chambers—the House and the Senate—it’s “bicameral” and not “unicameral.” You now know more about Congress than a shitload of people (and potentially some members of Congress).
ARTICLE I: Section 2
The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.
When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
ARTICLE I: SECTION 2
Every 2 years the whole House is up for re-election. If you can vote in your state’s house elections, you can vote in your state’s U.S. House elections.
This is a good time to note that other than Nebraska (which has a “unicameral” legislature), each state has its own house and senate for writing state laws. Sometimes a state house is called a house of delegates, or a state assembly, or also a house of representatives (confusing), while a state senate is sometimes called a senate (also confusing). Point is—besides Nebraska—each state has a house and a senate that are separate from the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate (which write federal laws). Please do not be ashamed if you didn’t know this. Also, to make it easier, the capitalized “House” and “Senate” will mean the federal legislature and the lowercase “house” and “senate” will mean a state legislature.
The residents of each state elect its representatives to the House, and the number of representatives is proportional to each state’s population (i.e., bigger states get more representatives). The only requirements to be a U.S. representative are:
You must be at least 25 years old.
You must have been an American citizen for at least 7 years.
You must live in the state you’re representing.
The next part of Article I, Section 2 no longer applies. Also, it was fucked up! It said that when counting the U.S. population for the purposes of establishing federal taxes (we used to tax states based on their population, where states paid taxes “per head”) and determining each state’s number of U.S. representatives in the House, “free people” counted as 1. People “working” for a fixed amount of time (i.e., indentured servants) counted as 1 as well. Native Americans who didn’t pay taxes counted as 0. And everyone else (i.e., slaves) counted as ⅗—or 60 percent—of a person. The idea was that if slaves counted as whole people, the slaveholding states would have to pay more in federal tax. But slaves counting as people would also give slaveholding states more representatives in the House. So James Wilson and Charles Pinckney (2 of the delegates) suggested the ⅗ compromise, an unused idea that James Madison had come up with for the old constitution (aka the Articles of Confederation). Anyway, this fucked-up part of the Constitution was eliminated by the 13th and 14th Amendments.
The number of U.S. representatives from each state must be determined within 3 years of the first meeting of Congress (the first determination was in 1790) and revised every 10 years after that. Congress decides how this is done.
This is called the Census. We count the population, and the federal government uses the data to decide how many representatives each state gets (this isn’t in the Constitution, but the government also uses it to determine how much federal funding goes to things like roads, healthcare, and disaster relief). Regardless of population, each state gets at least 1 representative (states with only 1 are called “at large”).
You can ignore the next part of the Constitution—it was just a list of existing states and the number of representatives they got in the 1st Congress (in 1789). At the time, states got 1 representative for every 30,000 people, but as the population grew—and more representatives were added—the House got crowded. So, 140 years later, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929 that capped the number of U.S. representatives at 435 (which we still have today). But since we’re locked at 435, and have been for 91 years, there is now 1 U.S. representative for every 752,000 people instead of every 30,000—or 25 times more than the delegates intended.
Each state must have at least 1 representative. When a representative leaves office before the end of their term (quits, dies, gets kicked out), the governor of that representative’s state calls for a special election to fill the seat.
Representatives choose their leader—the speaker of the House—and other officers (visit bit.ly/headsofhouse for the list; don’t worry, it’s just a shortened link to the House’s website).
There is absolutely no rule for who can be the speaker, meaning the Constitution has no requirements for it. The speaker of the House could be you, your dad, your dad’s friend, your sister, Blake Shelton, anyone. So far it has never NOT been a current member of the House, but nowhere in the Constitution does it say that it needs to be. If Blake Shelton gets a majority of votes from the representatives and agrees to do it, Blake Shelton becomes speaker of the House. He would also be 2nd in line for the presidency, behind the vice president. Good luck, Blake!
Finally, just the House—NOT the Senate, the president, the courts, or anyone or anything else—has the power to impeach.
“Impeach” DOES NOT MEAN “remove from office”; it only means the Senate can begin DECIDING, with a trial, whether or not to remove someone (including the president, other executive branch officers, judges, and Supreme Court justices). We’ll dive into impeachment later, but think of it as the House charging a federal official with a crime, and the Senate as the courtroom trial where the punishment is removal.
ARTICLE I: Section 3
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
- "Ben provides a totally fresh departure for thinking about the Constitution for lots of people who don't make a livelihood out of it, but need to understand it. A wonderful, breakthrough book."—Jamie Raskin, U.S. representative and former professor of constitutional law at American University's Washington College of Law
- "I wish this book existed 50 years ago when I moved to the United States. Ben's constitutional breakdown is a must-read for every current and aspiring citizen."—Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California
- "Finally someone has created an easy way to teach something that's so crucial to us as citizens and as a country. Read this if you want to be smart, no pressure."—Derek Waters, creator of Drunk History
- "Ben grew up in D.C. and had a parent who worked in the U.S. Senate, which gave him the privilege of learning how the government works from a young age. Ben shares that privilege in OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? This clear, understandable translation of the Constitution immensely helps us understand WTF actually goes on in our government."—Ilana Glazer, activist, actress and co-creator of Broad City
- "In a meeting a few years ago, Ben Sheehan made the topic of gerrymandering genuinely funny to me. Ever since, he's been someone I think of when I look for examples on how to make civics more accessible. Give this book a read!"—Kal Penn, actor and former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement
- "Every election, millions of people do not vote simply because they don't understand how the government works. If every American had this book they would laugh, learn, and go to the polls."—Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote
- "We're feeling extra smart this week after reading Ben Sheehan's OMG WTF Does The Constitution Actually Say? Truly, our self-confidence hasn't been this high since we put on concealer six weeks ago."—Betches
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal