In the opening moments of the four-part PBS series “Constitution USA,” host Peter Sagal sums up the significance of this program far better than anyone else could. After noting that the Constitution of the United States was written in 1787, Sagal observes, “More than two centuries later, many of us don’t have any idea what the Constitution says. Of course, that’s never stopped us from arguing about what it means.”
Now more than ever, with the country so sharply divided on so many important matters and our federal government accomplishing almost nothing at all, Sagal’s straightforward approach to explaining what the government under the Constitution can and cannot do for us and to us is essential viewing. Fortunately, Sagal has managed to take what could have been yet another boring series filled with still images and talking-head lectures and instead pumped it full of humor, heart and thoughtful contemporary energy.
“Constitution USA” has been framed as a road trip for Sagal, who literally purchases a motorcycle at the start of the show and then heads out across America to speak with experts and everyday folks about the Constitution and rarely discussed but extremely important issues of state versus federal law. There is a delicate balance between the two, and the give and take doesn’t always benefit the average citizen. The bottom line, as Sagal explains, is that the United States isn’t necessarily as unified as we might think. “You could call this country the Ambivalently and Sometimes Grudgingly Cooperative States,” he suggests.
Sagal has put together compelling stories about everyday people dealing with how their rights are affected by state and federal laws, especially the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce. All points of view are represented. For example, there’s Steve D’Angelo, a mild-mannered and highly conscientious businessman who runs a cannabis farm in northern California and sells medical marijuana. As it happens, he is operating well within the limits of California law (his business paid over $3 million in taxes last year), but under federal law his livelihood is a “terrible crime,” as Sagal describes it. “At any minute federal authorities could appear here, arrest everybody, seize all this and send them all to prison,” he says.
Actually, the feds could do worse. “I spend my life terrified,” D’Angelo admits. “I don’t know when I come to work in the morning if I’m going home at night or if someone will take me out of here in handcuffs.” D’Angelo considers himself to be a respected and respectful citizen, “but under the laws of the United States I’m a criminal deserving of the death penalty,” he reveals. “For every 60,000 cannabis plants that you possess or distribute, you can receive the death penalty. I’ve distributed well over one million of them.”
Then there’s Gary Marbut, who lives in Missoula, Mont., where the average gun-owning family has 27 guns. He’s described as one of the country’s most outspoken advocates for gun rights. Marbut is fighting the federal government’s efforts to regulate firearms, not by focusing on the Second Amendment but by targeting the commerce clause, whose meaning Marbut insists the federal government has distorted. Toward that end, Marbut wants to manufacture a new gun called the Montana Buck-a-Roo, a 22-caliber single-shot bolt-action rifle designed to give young Montanans their first experience with a firearm. Marbut asserts that if the Buck-a-Roo is made in Montana, sold only in Montana and never crosses state lines, then the federal government has no power to regulate it.
As Sagal’s program illustrates, sometimes millions of individuals benefit when the federal government oversteps its boundaries, as it did in the 1930s with the construction of the Hoover Dam, a mammoth and much-needed project that Nevada and Arizona did not have the manpower or the money to execute. But at other times the federal government goes too far and makes a real mess of things.
In a segment everyone can relate to in one way or another, we learn about the passage of the Energy Policy Act in 1992, one aspect of which reduced the amount of water that flushes through American toilets from 3.5 gallons to 1.6. The purpose, of course, was to conserve water. But toilet technology wasn’t very advanced at the time, and as a result Americans were forced to spend millions of dollars on new toilets that simply did not work well. Plus, millions of gallons of water were wasted when multiple flushes were needed. As seen in the program, smiling bureaucrats had little understanding of what they were demanding of the American people and cared even less about the financial burden placed on them.
These are just a few of the stories that Sagal tells, some quite serious, some perhaps less so, but all of them important to our understanding of the roles that state and federal governments play in our lives, not to mention our rights under the Constitution. The takeaway is a greater understanding of how the country runs and how misunderstood so many aspects of our basic freedoms can be. As is often the case in such shows, it is the average working people who prove far more interesting to listen to. This is the very best kind of reality television, because it’s all about us.