By Christopher Lee
Civics lessons do not get much swankier than this.
The 160 or so federal employees who filed into the National Archives' McGowan Theater yesterday for a program on the Constitution sat in plush red chairs and heard a five-piece brass band play patriotic songs. They were given pocket-size copies of the country's most famous document, and settled in for speeches from such experts as National Archivist Allen Weinstein and Deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley.
Then came the featured attraction, the 87-year-old senator with the shock of white hair who moved slowly to the lectern with a cane in each hand and began quoting the Founding Fathers as though they were personal friends. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has made his living in the Senate for nearly 50 years and totes a tiny version of the Constitution wherever he goes, was there to sing the praises of a document that he said was second in his heart only to the Bible.
"Our Constitution is not a mere dry piece of dead parchment," Byrd said, "but a revered and living document that has helped inspire our nation to achieve seemingly impossible goals and to keep alive irrepressible hope, even in the face of unanticipated and sometimes unbearable adversity."
Byrd lamented that most Americans spend more time watching "Desperate Housewives" than reading the document that guarantees their way of life. He said polls show that a third of all Americans do not even know how many branches of government there are. (Three.) To help change that, the Democrat added language to a spending bill requiring federal agencies to provide "educational and training" materials about the Constitution each year to the government's 1.8 million civilian employees -- all of whom, after all, take an oath to support and defend the national charter. Agency officials say that could mean more programs such as the one offered yesterday, which was organized by the Office of Personnel Management to "celebrate" the new requirement with key agency officials. The law also requires schools that receive federal money to show students a program on the Constitution.
"It seems obvious that a great republic cannot sustain itself unless its citizens participate in their own government," Byrd said. "But how can they participate meaningfully if they don't know the fundamental principles on which their government is founded?"
Julie Atkins, a Federal Transit Administration budget analyst and "a bit of a nerd," said the Constitution fascinates her.
"It's amazing that our government exists today and it's built on these pages, a relatively small document with enduring ideas," said Atkins, a presidential management fellow with a PhD in political science. "I know it sounds naive and idealistic, but I guess I was naive and idealistic to work for the government in the first place."
LaJuan Bryan-Beveridge, a new-employee coordinator at OPM, said, "Before you become a federal employee, you have to be sworn in. So you should at least know what you are swearing to."
OPM Director Linda Springer said each agency will devise its own program to be presented on or near Sept. 17, Constitution Day. Springer had no estimates of the expense but said, "It's going to be minimal cost compared to the value that we get from it."
Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Byrd's requirement was laden with irony since, in Pilon's view, the government's involvement in public education and many other programs goes far beyond anything in the Constitution.
"The idea of these federal workers taking time off to learn about the Constitution in itself isn't a bad thing," Pilon said. "But that's not what the taxpayers pay them to do. Indeed, one would like to think they already know about the Constitution before they go to work for the federal government."
Springer and other agency officials may want to direct employees to pay special attention to the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Two audience members approached by a reporter declined to be quoted, though the subject was hardly controversial.
"I'm not allowed to talk," one woman said. "It's a requirement of my agency."
She declined to name the agency.
Later, in the hallway, Eldon Girdner, a special assistant in OPM's office of communications, cast a watchful eye on whomever a reporter tried to interview. Girdner said the eavesdropping was standard procedure and declined to go away when asked.
Carol Harvey, a 34-year federal employee who works in leadership development at OPM, said the country needs civics lessons such as the Byrd requirement.
"There are many people who know all of the social kinds of things and have no idea what our government is based on," Harvey said. "That could be one reason that people have so little respect for the civil service. We're trying to increase respect for government. People who aren't federal employees don't know that civil servants really care about them and are wholeheartedly trying to serve the people."